After local pushback, proposed juvenile treatment facility in Newbury in limbo pending Vt. Supreme Court appeal
In the fall of 2020, the state shuttered Woodside, the only juvenile detention center in Vermont. The state was holding fewer kids at the aging facility, and some of the youth held there accused staffers of using excessive force and unlawful restraints.
Without Woodside, kids who need treatment in a locked setting have nowhere to go in state, and some arrested for violent crimes have ended up in adult prisons.
The state wants to create several smaller facilities to fill the void left by Woodside, including one in Newbury, to help kids address behaviors that can lead to criminal actions. But the proposal has met stiff opposition in the Orange County town, where residents argue they should be able to reject the proposal.
The proposed facility could house up to six boys, aged 12 to 17, on the site of an old bed and breakfast. The six-room house sits off a dirt road on about 278 acres of mostly-wooded terrain.
Many people in Newbury say their town is not the right place for what the state has proposed.
“These kids will be disenfranchised,” said Joanne O’Meara, a Newbury resident. “They'll be stuck up on a hill in this incredibly remote location with no access to their support systems.”
O’Meara and other residents opposed to the project say the town has limited services and no local police department to respond to emergencies or a kid who escapes.
“It is not safe,” O’Meara said. “What if emergency services can't get to them? What happens in that locked facility to the staff? What happens if there's one youth that's just having an acute episode?”
"What if emergency services can't get to them? What happens in that locked facility to the staff? What happens if there's one youth that's just having an acute episode?"Joanne O'Meara, Newbury resident
Newbury’s development review board in November 2021 unanimously denied the application for the facility, which would have 12-foot-high fences, detention-grade doors and windows and walls made of abuse-resistant materials.
Town officials said it would have an adverse effect on the character of Newbury, and did not meet the town’s definitions of a residential care or group home.
Larry Scott, who chaired the DRB’s hearing on the juvenile facility, said the proposed development would have been in the town’s conservation district.
“Commercial enterprises are supposed to be located in the hamlets or the village centers,” he said. “So this facility, being a juvenile detention center, was not an allowable use in that district.”
The state disagreed and appealed. An environmental court judge last fall sided with the state, and overturned Newbury's decision. In a last-ditch effort, the town and residents opposed to the project have appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Tyler Allen, the adolescent services director for the Department of Children and Families, said that generally, the state does need a place to provide treatment and education for youth in a secure setting. Allen said kids in that facility would likely stay around four months, then move to a lower level of care.
“Potentially another residential setting that's non-secured or back into a community setting, which is secure because they've not only been stabilized, but they've gotten a dose of treatment,” Allen said.
The pushback in Newbury is similar to what happened when state officials were trying to build Woodside four decades ago. At that time, every potential location for the juvenile lockup met local resistance — even police didn’t want the facility next to the training academy in Pittsfield, according to a 1981 article in the Burlington Free Press.
When lawmakers settled on Essex Junction, residents weren’t happy.
“Essex citizens did feel abused, not only the Selectmen, but the majority of people,” said Essex Junction Rep. Althea Kroger in 1983. “We didn't have an opportunity, didn't have enough time to express our concern. As you remember, the decision on siting was made very, very late in the session. And that was unfortunate, because we believe that it wasn't an appropriate site, and continue to believe that.”
Woodside opened in 1986 in Essex Junction on a plot of land near the Winooski River, around a natural area with walking trails. The 30-bed facility’s purpose was to hold youth who’d committed crimes, and early on it was often at capacity. But over the years, approaches to juvenile justice have shifted away from incarceration and towards rehabilitation.
"Newbury is proposed to fill a very specific sort of niche role. So it'd be a really small program that would provide intensive therapeutic services in a secure setting."Marshall Pahl, Vermont's chief juvenile defender
Tyler Allen with DCF said the goal is to have kids in the least restrictive environment.
“The whole approach we're trying to take is to most quickly move somebody to the lowest levels of care that are required to meet their treatment needs in any given moment,” he said.
Woodside, as the state’s most restrictive facility, saw its population dwindle. Chief Juvenile Defender Marshall Pahl said during its final months, Woodside’s population hovered between zero and five kids.
Pahl, whose office represents youth accused of crimes, says the size and scope of the proposed Newbury facility makes sense.
“Newbury is proposed to fill a very specific sort of niche role,” Pahl said. “So it'd be a really small program that would provide intensive therapeutic services in a secure setting. And that's … a small, but very important part of that continuum of care.”
Some residents in Newbury have raised concerns about how the state would run the facility. DCF would lease the Newbury property from its owners, the Vermont Permanency Initiative, a nonprofit that runs other therapeutic programs. Then the state would contract with VPI to run the facility.
Pahl said his office, which sued Woodside for allegedly mistreating youth, will keep an eye on their clients.
“We would absolutely be in there regularly and all the time, monitoring it, interviewing our clients, finding out what's going on — just like we were at Woodside,” he said.
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, chair of the Judiciary Committee and co-founder of a residential program for troubled youth, said opposition in Newbury is leaving a hole in the state’s treatment options.
“Nobody wants these programs, and by and large, and yet they're needed in a state,” Sears said. “To be able to zone them out or not allow them, I mean, the decision on Newbury was an administrative decision, and it’s unfortunate it's taken as long as it has. It’s had very severe repercussions in the juvenile justice system.”
“What is the right location?” Sears added when asked about the opposition in Newbury. “I've got several in my backyard literally. And I've had no problem.”
"Nobody wants these programs, and by and large, and yet they're needed in a state."Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears
Walter Cottrell and other Newbury residents opposed to the project say the state needs a secure facility for youth. But Cottrell said Newbury isn’t the right place, and if they lose their Vermont Supreme Court appeal, that could be a disaster for local control across the state.
“The will of the people who live in it, in the municipality, will be lost,” Cottrell said. “Every place that there are select boards, every place where there's some sort of local government, it's all going to be in jeopardy.”
Both sides still need to file briefs in the Vermont Supreme Court appeal, which means that the hearing — and the ultimate decision — are still months away.
Vermont Public’s Bob Kinzel contributed reporting to this story.
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