The Defender General’s Office has sued Vermont’s only juvenile detention facility, accusing staffers of using “dangerous and painful restraint” techniques and other disciplinary methods that run afoul of common standards.
The lawsuit comes after years of complaints about Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center and questions about its future.
Court documents describe a recent incident in which a 17-year old was held on the ground with a knee in his back, allegedly cutting off his ability to breathe or speak and resulting in “significant pain and swelling of his joints.”
The lawsuit asks for Woodside to immediately stop using “the purposeful infliction of pain” during restraints and to switch to a nationally recognized method.
“The theory of this case is that restraint practice is illegal, unlawful,” Chief Juvenile Defender Marshall Pahl said. “And so when you’re seeking relief in a case like that you don’t ask for just simply individual relief, you’re asking for the unlawful practice to cease — but it is still just on behalf of one kid.”
The Department for Children and Families — which runs Woodside — disputes the claims in the lawsuit, saying it contained “mischaracterizations and factual inaccuracies.”
In a written statement, DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said that Woodside does “everything it can to avoid the use of physical restraints” and hasn’t had a serious injury due to a restraint in more than 10 years.
The department is working “on an ongoing basis to review and improve practices,” according to Schatz.
The kids housed at Woodside include those in DCF custody and kids involved in the criminal justice system. The program serves kids between the ages of 10 and 17.
The department’s website describes that facility as providing “short- and long-term placements and treatment services for youth — in a safe and secure environment.”
But critics contend that the facility operates more like a prison.
AJ Ruben, the supervising attorney at Disability Rights Vermont, said his office has had concerns about Woodside for years.
“Our big concerns are with the physical plant and with the whole culture at Woodside,” Ruben said. “[It] used to be a detention facility. It's being moved over to a residential treatment facility, but there is some lag in the way policies and procedures are moving in that direction — specifically things like the use of force system.”
Ruben said DCF officials have been meeting with DRV to discuss Woodside.
“DCF and the staff at Woodside are cooperating with us,” Ruben said. “We meet regularly, we share information, but we're still pretty far apart on what the right thing is in the short-term for the kids."
The incident described in the lawsuit isn’t the only time staff at Woodside have allegedly used these restraint techniques, according to records obtained by VPR.
Last year, DCF investigators determined that, on four occasions, Woodside staffers restrained children in ways that violated a regulation prohibiting “cruel, severe, unusual or unnecessary practices.”
In one case, the investigator describes a child being held on the ground with a knee in her back after refusing to go to her room. The child was “screaming and crying ‘please stop twisting arm,’" according to the records.
“The reality is, I think that many of the techniques are overly aggressive,” said Paul Capcara, director of an inpatient psychiatric unit at Cottage Hospital. “They result in what is termed pain compliance — in other words, exerting enough pressure on joints ... to induce pain to get them to comply with their wishes.”
Capcara’s opinion is included in the lawsuit. He wrote that the restraint of the plaintiff placed the kid in a “highly unsafe situation” because he “was unable to expand his chest cavity and breathe or talk normally.”
Capcara said he’s concerned these techniques are being used on children, including many who have been abused or neglected by adults.
“In these cases, the adults are replicating a lot of the trauma and abuse the children have suffered before,” he said.
The future of Woodside has been up for debate. The number of kids placed at the 30-bed facility has dropped in recent years. 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.
In December 2018, DCF Commissioner Schatz told Vermont Edition while there's still a need for a locked juvenile facility, he's open to revamping the approach.
“My vision is that it actually would have some flexibility,” Schatz said. “There would be some pods, some locked and unlocked, so we could allow for transitions and maybe a better variety of uses to meet the needs of children who really do need a highly supervised setting.”
In January, Schatz told the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions he supports building a new 30-bed facility to replace Woodside.