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Vt. state employees union asks for state of emergency to address shortage of secure beds for youth

Angela Evancie
VPR File
The Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee met Thursday to discuss secure placements for juveniles.

The union that represents state employees in Vermont is calling on Gov. Phil Scott to declare a state of emergency to address the shortage of secure residential beds for traumatized and sometimes violent youth.

During a legislative hearing in Montpelier Thursday, Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, said the lack of residential facilities for children who pose a risk to themselves or others has become a “public safety crisis.”

“The members of the VSEA are calling on the governor to declare a state of emergency for DCF Family Services (Division) and to do it today, cutting red tape and moving the total force and all available resources of state government to bring to fruition immediate beds of any type,” Howard told members of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee.

Howard said those “available resources” should include the Vermont National Guard, which could expedite construction of new beds in much the same way it did with hospital surge sites during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We urge the governor to deploy the National Guard to construct more beds, and to provide security to our family service members in situations where the threat of violence is great,” he said.

Scott’s spokesperson said in a statement Thursday that deploying the National Guard is not “a realistic or appropriate solution in this case.” He also said the Agency of Human Services is developing a “comprehensive system of care” that will rely on “contracting with experts to develop and staff programs to best serve the complex needs of Vermont’s youth.”

So many elements of these proposals (from the administration) have been on the table for so long, and so many previous efforts toward a solution have failed to materialize. We are concerned there is no plan B.
Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association

One of those programs could come online as early as January. The Department for Children and Families and Department of Buildings and General Services is retrofitting a former psychiatric facility in Middlesex that, once complete, will provide four secure residential beds for youth on a temporary basis. DCF is working to establish another small facility in Windham County. And the department hopes to have a larger facility built and ready for occupancy by early 2026.

Howard, however, said promises of more beds have been made and broken many times in the recent past. And he said caseworkers are being forced to care for violent youth in settings that imperil the safety of children and staff.

“So many elements of these proposals (from the administration) have been on the table for so long, and so many previous efforts toward a solution have failed to materialize. We are concerned there is no plan B,” he said. “Our members are exhausted, they’re demoralized, and they are giving up. We cannot sustain what is currently occurring much longer.”

Trissie Casanova, who’s spent 21 years at DCF, said the situation for caseworkers has become untenable. In 2020, she said, 151 workers were called on to provide special staffing in alternative settings — such as emergency rooms or police conference rooms — because there were no secure beds available. In 2022, she said, there were 485 similar staffing assignments.

The increase is due to a decline in the number of secure beds for kids in crisis, which dropped from 196 at the beginning of 2020 to 100 as of August 23, according to data provided by DCF.

“In my 20 years at working at family services, I have never seen us in the crisis that we are in within our system of care,” Casanova said. “We do not have the system is place in order to keep these kids safe, and myself, and my peers, the staff within family services, safe.”

From Vermont Edition: Seven Days reporter discusses article detailing violence at Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center

Commissioner for Children and Families Chris Winters acknowledged Monday that the department is in “crisis management mode.”

“We’re seeing acute care that’s needed at levels we haven’t seen before,” he said. “There’s just so much pressure on the system right now.”

He said that pressure is taking a toll on DCF workers.

“It’s trying to piece together some sort of help for these kids with inadequate resources, and they are burned out from it,” he said. “And we are losing very good family services workers because it’s just untenable.”

Winters said he’s hopeful that the Middlesex facility will be online by January, though state officials warned that the building might not be ready for occupancy until March.

“This is not going to be large enough to meet the full demands for secure treatment in the state but it will address the most acute needs. It will take pressure off that very top end,” he said. “It’s not enough but it’s coming soon, and it does some to relieve the pressure while we work on other aspects of the system.”

Howard said DCF workers can’t wait until next year, and urged administration officials and legislators to ensure that the Middlesex facility is operational by Thanksgiving at the latest.

If the administration doesn’t move with extreme urgency, Howard said, the state could experience catastrophic results.

“Our members are desperate, and they are watching as good people, experienced and competent in DCF family services, are making decisions they know they shouldn’t make and would never make except they have no other options,” he said. “Desperation has set in.”

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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