Federal judge gets update on Woodside reform efforts

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Vermont officials and a watchdog group told a judge Tuesday they're cooperating to make reforms at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center following a court order against the state this summer.

The Department for Children and Families was sued by Disability Rights Vermont, who alleged the youth being housed at the state's only juvenile detention facility, had their rights violated. In August a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction ordering DCF change some of their practices at the Colchester facility, calling descriptions of the incidents "shocking."

The lawsuit against Woodside alleged some of Woodside's policies weren't in line with current standards of care for youth experiencing mental health crises.

Among the alleged cases were two incidents, one from August 2018 and one from June 2019, where a young woman in crisis was restrained, placed in seclusion and had her clothing forcibly removed after an attempt at suicide. The lawsuit alleges she was left naked or partly naked and under observation by male staff members, sometimes for days.

Several other cases described youth being put in restraining holds that caused them pain or injury. The lawsuit alleges that level of force wasn't necessary and that staff used seclusion tactics too often.

"Anytime the state takes into their custody a young person, we have to do everything we can to protect that young person and make sure that they are healthy and treated with respect and dignity," said Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan back in August. He acknowledged the judge's decision was fair and called it a road map towards a more healthy system of care for youth who end up in Woodside. "It's a difficult experience and we have to be cognizant of that and we have to be mindful, I think, of the impact that has lifelong on young people, and so we look forward to doing our job as best we can."

In a memo filed Monday, DCF says since the judge's ruling in August it has been implementing reforms in partnership with DRVT, touting "significant progress on many issues." Among the changes they're working on now:

• Revised intake and emergency response policies.
• Limiting isolation of kids to no more than eight hours in a 24-hour
period.
• Adopting a trauma-informed model to govern policies of restraint
and seclusion.
• Transforming the North Unit to make it more of a therapeutic
space. That could cost $260,000 and take up to 15 months.
• Recruiting a clinician to lead Woodside.

Disability Rights Vermont officials say that if those changes are made, it will be a substantial improvement. They're waiting for that to happen before they believe the issues are resolved. They also say since the hearings began, Woodside's isolation unit has been shut down and the use of force and seclusion incidents they have heard about have been appropriate.

The Department of Justice also weighed in Tuesday in court, noting that federal law prohibits any child from being kept in isolation for longer than three hours, so it's possible their input may change what the final policy for Woodside is, even though it is not a federal facility.