A federal judge on Friday ordered Vermont's juvenile detention facility to reduce the use of solitary confinement and ease disciplinary procedures.
The preliminary injunction comes after Disability Rights Vermont filed a lawsuit in June alleging children at Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, in Colchester, were held in dangerous conditions. The suit focused on three areas: the use of seclusion, restraint techniques used by staff, and the treatment of youth in mental health crisis.
More from VPR — Federal Lawsuit Alleges 'Dangerous Conditions' For Children Held At Woodside [June 24]
In his ruling, Judge Geoffrey Crawford ordered the Department for Children and Families — which operates Woodside — to make changes in all of those three areas, including developing a new seclusion policy that "greatly limits the practice of isolating youth" and a "detailed policy for treating youth experiencing severe mental health symptoms."
Ed Paquin, executive director of Disability Rights Vermont, said the organization is pleased with the ruling.
"I am very hopeful that DCF is cooperative and that with our help and the help of experts who know these things ... [we] can come together and implement something that is going to address the concerns," Paquin said. "It leaves a lot of work to be done ... to really figure out what can be done in a way that changes the philosophy at Woodside to be more humane."
In a written statement, DCF said it's "supportive of making changes to policy and practice that are reflective of current best practices for youth."
In addition to changing its seclusion and treatment policies, DCF will change its restraint protocols to a nationally recognized method. The department was already in the process of replacing the current restraint system.
The injunction orders DCF to change its restraint practices "as quickly as possible." Crawford noted in the ruling that the current techniques are "strongly directed towards establishing control through physical means. … That no one has been injured in these struggles is more a matter of luck than of planning."
DCF will update the court on its progress in six weeks, according to court documents.
Disability Rights Vermont's lawsuit isn't the first time questions have been raised about use of force and conditions at Woodside.
Regulatory reports obtained by VPR described incidents where staff used techniques that violated a regulation prohibiting "cruel, severe, unusual or unnecessary practices," and a lawsuit filed by the Vermont Defender General's Office accused staffers of using "dangerous and painful restraint" techniques. That suit, filed on behalf of an unnamed 17-year-old, was dismissed after the juvenile was discharged from Woodside.
Last year, DCF abandoned an effort to reclassify as a psychiatric residential treatment facility, a designation that would have allowed Woodside to access Medicaid funds.
There's also been discussion about replacing Woodside. In January, DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz told the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions that he supports building a new facility.
The number of kids held at Woodside has dropped in recent years; in 2018, the average daily population was 12.