The 2020 closing of Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex left a vacuum in care for Vermont’s most troubled children requiring full-time oversight.
State officials have described the lack of beds for juveniles involved in the justice system as a crisis, yet the state has made little progress toward finding a viable location in three years.
Now, the Vermont Department for Children and Families is perhaps two months away from setting up temporary quarters in Middlesex in a state complex most recently used for inpatient mental health. The Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence, along U.S. Route 2 just west of Interstate 89’s Exit 9, filled a temporary role as residential housing for psychiatric treatment after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Waterbury psychiatric hospital in 2011. The patients there moved to permanent quarters in Essex in spring 2023.
Starting as soon as late January, after the state cleans up and reconfigures the building, the Middlesex residence will house up to four children for 14-day stints, unless special circumstances require them to stay longer, said Aryka Radke, deputy commissioner of the family services division of the Department for Children and Families. The site will serve as a short-term crisis stabilization center, which Radke described as a place for youths who may be suffering from a mental health crisis.
“It’s time for them to be removed from wherever they were experiencing crisis, give them the time, space and place to de-escalate and give our clinicians an opportunity to assess their needs,” she said.
The state Department of Children and Families shuttered Woodside amid allegations of abuse of children there. This year, the families of seven former Woodside patients won a $4.5 million settlement from the state in their lawsuit alleging that staff and supervisors there engaged in mistreatment and harmful practices. A recent in-depth article in Burlington newspaper Seven Days detailed the harrowing experience of one girl in custody at Woodside and renewed attention on the need for appropriate handling — including proper residential confinement — of kids in dire emotional and behavioral circumstances. Vermont’s past efforts to care for these children overshadow plans for the temporary site in Middlesex, as well as permanent options under consideration.
“They’re not planning on building anything that looks like Woodside,” said state Rep. Theresa Wood, a Waterbury Democrat representing the Washington-Chittenden district and chair of the House Committee on Human Services. Instead, the state plans to focus on smaller, more individualized group services, which Wood said is “definitely the better way to go.”
The state chose this location because of the infrastructure already on the property, Wood said. “The state was looking for where they could stand up a facility as quickly as possible, and so they looked at places where there was already existing infrastructure,” she said.
Middlesex also sits geographically close to the center of the state. The building can be “fit up” with relative ease, and the location on state-owned land avoids the chance of running into zoning issues, Radke said.
Renovations now underway include reinforcing walls, installing a new floor and adding shatterproof glass in the windows. New outside fencing will aim to prevent children from running away. The Middlesex center will also get a fresh coat of paint, Radke said.
The Department for Children and Families has long planned to open a permanent crisis treatment facility for boys in a former bed-and-breakfast west of Interstate 91 in Newbury, but the town has sued the state to stop that project, arguing that the use of that location for that intended purpose isn’t “appropriate,” Radke said. The suit is pending.
Middlesex residents have raised no such opposition, she said. Department for Children and Families representatives went door-to-door in that town to communicate with business owners and residents who live close to the former psychiatric treatment center and heard no “negative input or any type of concerns,” Radke said. No concerns came up in July and August at two town selectboard meetings, either, when the proposed use of the location was discussed, Radke added.
“Our interaction with the state has been totally them being courteous and trying to act like good neighbors of the town,” said Peter Hood, chair of the Middlesex Selectboard. “Truthfully, over the years there have been absolutely minimal problems or concerns for the operation of that facility and its previous use and more recently in the current use.”
Woodside had a 30-bed capacity, but only a few children were staying there by the time it closed, according to news reports. Department for Children and Families has custody of just under 1,000 kids today, and most don’t need full-time oversight in a secure facility, Radke said. The agency expects the four beds planned for Middlesex — for boys or girls — will be enough to take pressure off community-based settings, including unlocked facilities where youths engage and interact with the community, and the foster care system, which struggles with youth who need the highest levels of care, Radke said.
“I was very surprised at that low number because that’s a fairly good-sized facility and it would seem to me that it could handle more than that,” Hood said.
Department for Children and Families is looking to hire an outside vendor to staff the Middlesex site, which will need about 15 employees, Radke said. The state issued a request for proposals to operate both the temporary and eventual permanent detention centers — in hopes that a longer-term contract would entice more bids — but none came in, she said. Now, Department for Children and Families plans to reach out to vendors directly to get feedback and possibly re-issue the request for bids, she said.
The state agency is talking to local providers that have provided care to youths in Department for Children and Families custody and might agree to run the Middlesex center, Radke said. The “least optimal option,” as she put it, would leave Department for Children and Families to staff the temporary site.
Department for Children and Families also plans to use an outside vendor to oversee both the Middlesex and eventual permanent locations, to avoid the conflict of interest with a state agency that both runs the operation and regulates itself, Radke said.
Another proposed change for the new centers: Department for Children and Families officials want to move away from detention-based models in favor of “holistic, trauma-informed and developmentally appropriate programs” for the children in their care, even as those kids need to “make amends” for the crimes they commit, Radke said.
“At the same time,” she said, “we provide supports and services for them to rehabilitate themselves and move past this problem and go ahead and go out and be productive members of the community.”
(Will Thorn reported this story on assignment from The Waterbury Roundabout. The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.)