On June 21, Disability Rights Vermont (DRVT) filed a new lawsuit against the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center on behalf of children with disabilities, citing “dangerous conditions that are physically and emotionally harmful.”
According to the suit, when a child at the facility covered his cell window with his hands, staff charged into the room with riot shields, cut off his clothes, and physically restrained him. The child was left in his cell, shirtless and isolated, with no mattress, and a broken, overflowing toilet.
The Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center is Vermont’s only locked juvenile detention facility.
The facility is run by the Department for Children and Families (DCF) and claims to provide in-patient psychiatric, mental health, and substance abuse services to youth ages 10 to 17 in DCF custody or who have gone through the justice system. The facility accepts all residents, no matter their risk level or degree of mental health.
In addition to Woodside, defendants also include Ken Schatz, DCF Commissioner, and Jay Simons, director of Woodside.
This is the second suit filed against Woodside just this year, and is another in a long list of grievances and reports that highlight dangerous conditions and prison-like practices.
In April earlier this year, the Office of the Juvenile Defender sued the facility on behalf of one child with disabilities regarding inhumane use of pain compliance restraints, according to the docket report. The case was dismissed, however, when the child was discharged from the facility.
According to testimony from the dismissed case, the child recounted not being able to breathe after staff shoved him across the room, restrained him face down, “with his arms hyperextended and twisted behind his back, his legs crossed and pushed hard into his back.”
Simons said that if a child can say the words, “You’re choking me,” that means he can breath so there is no cause for concern.
The most recent case cites “unconstitutional and unlawful conditions,” as well as outlines a corrupt grievance filing system that allegedly sees staff retaliate against residents who file or talk about grievances.
The case also describes a staffing pattern that damages employees’ ability to best treat the children. According to the report, the staffing differs from other residential psychiatric treatment facilities and “deprives staff of the ability to rest and recuperate, resulting in more aggression and less patience when interacting with residents.”
Isolation is often used in lieu of adequate staffing and in response to patients in danger of self-harm.
One child was left in isolation after a suicide attempt, where staff “forcibly removed her pants, and left her naked from the waist down in her cell for more than two days,” according to the docket report.
Amid questions concerning Woodside’s future, the facility lost its federal funding last fall due to a report that children were treated more like “inmates” rather than patients.
Another child described in the case was “physically restrained and carried while shackled in handcuffs and leg irons for refusing to return to her room.” Staff used a pain compliance technique where their knees are forced into the child’s back while restrained in the prone position—a technique that has been known to result in asphyxiation and death.
While a proposal to fund a new facility was floated in front of the House in January of this year, no new funding has been allotted. But even if the new building were to be approved and funding allotted, improvements would still be years away.
The DCF’s own Residential Licensing and Special Investigations Unit (RLSI) conducted a comprehensive report in October 2018, which is at the heart of the case, but Woodside has still denied all wrongdoing.
A statement DCF issued to VPR in late June says that they are in the process of reviewing the lawsuit.
“Woodside has been working in collaboration with interested stakeholders, including Disability Rights Vermont, on an ongoing basis to review its practices and improve them when appropriate. This includes consulting with an expert to assess de-escalation and restraint practices. We expect the expert’s report and recommendations in the next few weeks,” the statement reads.