What's next for at-risk teens after Woodside closure?

Published: Nov. 26, 2019 at 5:02 PM EST
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With Vermont's only juvenile detention facility targeted for closure, what's next for the state's at-risk teens and the staff who cared for them?

The Department for Children and Families announced Monday that the Woodside facility in Colchester will be closing after a decline in the high-risk youth population it serves. The Colchester facility has been under scrutiny for years and has faced numerous lawsuits over procedures. But state officials say there's also been a shift in how to best handle juveniles.

"The drop in the number of kids seeking treatment has moved us now to the conclusion that we feel that this proposal that we're making to the Legislature that Woodside should be closed," said Gov. Phil Scott Tuesday.

DCF officials say youth that would have been treated at Woodside are now being placed into a spectrum of care settings, from their own homes to other secure residential facilities -- including those at highest risk. "We've added more assessment beds to get a better handle on some of those youth with more acute needs so that we place them appropriately," said DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz.

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio says he has been pushing for the closure of Woodside for years, arguing that troubled teens should be in mental health facilities, not correctional ones. "They've evolved too, with what we've learned more about adolescent development, brain chemistry, brain development and the like, to adopt to what we know as a matter of science, to make sure kids are getting the treatment they need." he said.

But some, including union officials, are critical of the plan to close Woodside, claiming the state is repeating history. The Vermont State Employees Association's Steve Howard says treating kids outside of a centralized facility could create a backlog in local facilities, similar to what happened after the state hospital in Waterbury closed. "The only facility that doesn't turn turn their back on them and doesn't reject them is Woodside -- and they get good results," he said.

Howard contends that community-based facilities are not the answer and that if Woodside needs to be replaced, the state should invest in a new treatment facility which could serve as a safety net for the state's most vurnerable. "The alternative to bigger and better Woodside is less restrictive -- which could be done -- is sending kids outside of the state, and we're going to send them to facilities that aren't equipped to take care of them," Howard said.

As for the facility's 50 employees, their future remains murky if the facility shuts down. The state says they'll discuss their options with VSEA under the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the state.

If the Woodside is shut down, Agency of Human Services officials say it'll save the state around $3.5 million per year.

The proposal to close Woodside isn't final though. The legislature still needs to give their seal of approval this coming session. If it passes, the Scott administration is hoping to fully close Woodside by next summer.