A room at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center
Updated on November 26, 2019.
Vermont officials are proposing to close the state’s only locked detention center for delinquent children next year, citing a drop in youth crime and a shift away from housing youth in such facilities.
The number of kids that were housed each day at Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex had been cut in half over the past four years, from as many as 25 to fewer than 12 last year, said Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.
The department oversees the facility, which houses children between the ages of 10 and 17. But the declining numbers led to discussion last year about whether to close the spartan center, build a smaller one, or construct a larger, $23 million campus with several buildings
“The legislature made it pretty clear they weren’t interested in that proposal,” Schatz said of the third option.
After expanding the number of beds at existing community-based youth programs, the department saw the numbers housed at Woodside drop sharply over the summer, to fewer than five per day, he said.
Last Thursday, there were no wards at the center for the first time since it was built in 1986.
The closure plan, which must be approved by the legislature, immediately drew condemnation from union officials who said the state should invest in a new facility instead of closing the only one of its kind in the state.
They warned the closure would lead to troubled kids being placed in out-of-state programs of unknown quality.
“It’s easier to send your problems out of state, and I think our members reject that,” said Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association. "They think we should invest in a facility that meets the needs of our youth.”
About 50 unionized state employees, including guards and social workers, look after youth detained at the center, many of whom have been violent.
Schatz acknowledged that some Vermont youth are sent to out-of-state programs. Most are located in border states such as New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which in some cases are closer to the childrens’ homes than Essex, he said.
In some special situations, youth can be sent to programs farther away, but that is not the department’s goal, Schatz continued: “We are working pretty hard to keep kids in family-like environments and keep kids close to home."
There are 59 delinquent youth currently in the department’s care, but the vast majority of them do not need the kind of locked detention environment that Woodside provided, the commissioner said.
The facility remains open and accepting youth when necessary, and the department doesn’t plan any immediate changes, Schatz said. Gov. Phil Scott has been briefed on the closure plan and is on board.
“My understanding is that the governor has no objections to it,” Schatz said.