Judge finds facility in need of ‘systemic reform’

A federal judge has ordered changes to policies of seclusion and restraint at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in response to a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Vermont (DRV).

DRV has alleged that Woodside has violated the due process rights of youth, aged 10 to 18, incarcerated there. Woodside is the state’s only facility for residential treatment of juvenile offenders.

In a preliminary injunction issued on Friday, Judge Geoffrey Crawford found that DRV is likely to succeed on the merits of its case, a legal requirement for the issuance of a preliminary injunction.

The ruling requires Woodside to institute a change to its restraint procedures as quickly as possible. Woodside had already agreed to adopt a nationally recognized standard in place of its current restraint procedures, which were developed by Woodside director Jay Simons, but said it would take five months to do so.

Those procedures, as described by Crawford, require that youth be forced to the floor, their legs bent crossed at the ankles, and pushed back toward their buttocks, while their arms are raised high as possible behind their backs.

“It is strongly directed towards physical confrontation and use of force,” Crawford wrote of Woodside’s restraint policy and procedures.

Prior to issuing his decision, Crawford reviewed recordings of the use of Woodside’s restraint techniques on three boys. Crawford covered each in detail in his ruling, describing how Woodside staff, typically four to five adult men, struggled to get the youths into the prescribed position.

“The position is obviously painful,” Crawford wrote in his description of one of the videos. “The staff members have a great deal of difficulty getting and keeping him in this position.”

The issuance of a preliminary injunction generally requires the party seeking the injunction show irreparable harm will be caused if the behavior is not halted prior to trial. Such a showing is not necessary where a violation of a constitutional right is involved, as it is here. Nevertheless, Crawford wrote: “The court is satisfied that the emotional harm alleged is irreparable both in the sense that it is not readily compensated by money damages, and that the harm caused by the misuse of force resolves slowly and not always fully. The parties agree that youth admitted to Woodside have frequently been subjected to prior abuse and that they are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment.

“The violence depicted on the video exhibit is intense and long in duration.”

At another point in his ruling, Crawford describes the use of restraint he reviewed as “prolonged, chaotic and featur[ing] considerable violence.”

Crawford said he will schedule future hearings to insure the restraint policy is changed as quickly as possible.

Woodside was also ordered to present the court with a new policy to reduce the use of seclusion and address deficiencies “such as toilet flushing and access to bedding and fresh water not less then ten days before the next hearing.”

Crawford found that Woodside was keeping its young residents in isolation for days, weeks, even months at a time.

Those in isolation are in a room with a toilet they cannot flush themselves, and which, Crawford found, often went unflushed by staff.

“Youth went without exercise, bedding and showers for days,” Crawford wrote. “Plaintiff’s experts were very credible in describing the harm caused by prolonged isolation of young people from their peers and normal activities of life.”

Woodside claimed isolation was a safe and effective way to provide intensive counseling. The counseling was provided by a staff person located outside the door.

The third issue in the injunction is the treatment of youth in mental health crises, particularly those at risk of suicide.

One of the videos reviewed by Crawford showed a girl naked in a tiled shower room, smeared with excrement, being subdued by a group of men in hazmat suits. Woodside was trying to transfer her to the University of Vermont Medical Center, which did not want to accept her.

“The use of four hooded male officers, clothed in hazmat suits, to subdue a naked young woman and force her to the floor beneath a plexiglass shield cannot represent an appropriate, professional response to her attempts to strangle herself with cords and fabric strips torn from her clothing,” Crawford wrote. “Instead, the segment shows staff responding to her dangerous behavior in a manner that was both too much and too little. The force employed was too much. The apparent absence of a considered, medically-directed plan of treatment for a person in the midst of a mental crisis was too little.”

“The treatment of this girl is entirely inappropriate and demonstrates in the space of a few minutes Woodside’s limited ability to care for a child who is experiencing symptoms of serious mental illness,” Crawford wrote.

Ultimately, “she was released to the home of her grandmother, apparently without further incident,” Crawford wrote.

However, because the record regarding the incident was not complete, Crawford deferred his ruling on this section of the injunction “until the state has an opportunity… to produce and explain the incident that led to this incident.”

Crawford also reviewed multiple reports about Woodside, including six investigations into individual incidents at Woodside between December 2017 and July 2018 conducted by the Residential Licensing and Special Investigations unit of the Dept. of Children and Families, which also runs Woodside.

Those reports found, according to Crawford:

  • excessive use of seclusion, along with delays in flushing toilets and providing access to fresh water;
  • a failure to use de-escalation techniques. “Woodside staff were found to trigger violent confrontations by aggressively surrounding and confining youth;”
  • using pain to force compliance;
  • use of a restraint procedure that is not nationally recognized;
  • unreasonably withholding tampons from a resident;
  • an inadequate medical response to a suicide attempt;
  • violation a youth’s safety and privacy by removing clothing.

After reviewing the six reports admitted into evidence, Crawford said they “describe an institution in need of systemic change and reform.”