Vermont Supreme Court rules in favor of locked youth treatment facility in Newbury
A ruling by Vermont's highest court in late December has cleared the way for the state to build a locked treatment facility for youth involved in the criminal justice system.
The controversial project would house up to six boys, aged 12 to 17, at the site of a former bed and breakfast in Newbury. The building sits off a dirt road on about 278 acres of mostly-wooded terrain.
Newbury’s development review board rejected the project, arguing that the facility didn't meet the definition of a residential care or group home and that the state couldn't guarantee that all the youth at the facility would have a disability or behavioral disorder. The board’s decision was overturned after the state won an appeal to the environmental court, and then the town appealed that ruling to the state’s highest court.
The Vermont Supreme Court, in a four to one decision issued on Dec. 21, determined the project did meet the definition of a group home.
Newbury residents and the town had argued that the facility, which would have 12-foot-high fences and detention-grade doors, was a prison and not a treatment facility, but the court wrote in its decision that the law doesn’t “preclude a group home from having security features.”
“The key characteristics are the facts that the facility will be the sole and primary residence for the youth placed there,” the high court wrote in their decision. “This is a critical need, and for some youth, stabilization may depend on the availability of having both a secure and therapeutic environment.”
The court also found that the state’s plan to screen youth to ensure placement at the facility was appropriate.
Not all the justices agreed. In a sharply-worded dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Karen Carroll wrote that the majority is giving the Department for Children and Families too much deference to determine what is a therapeutic group home and if a youth's placement is appropriate.
“Giving DCF near carte blanche to recommend placement of a juvenile in a secure, rural facility because it regards the juvenile as having a disability exposes our justice-involved juveniles to illogical and bizarre incarcerative ordeals, the very issues the Legislature sought to cure by closing Woodside.” Carroll wrote in her opinion.
The state has been struggling to fill the void left when Woodside, the state’s sole juvenile detention center, closed in 2020. The state was holding fewer kids at Woodside and youth held at the facility accused staffers of using excessive force and unlawful restraints.
The state planned to build several smaller facilities for youth involved in the criminal justice system, including the facility in Newbury.
DCF Commissioner Chris Winters said in an interview on Thursday that the department was happy with the court’s decision. But Winters said the agency doesn't have a timeline for opening the Newbury facility.
“I think we have to take a step back and reassess all of our needs across the system,” Winters said. “Because this has been under appeal, we've been trying to pursue multiple options at once so that we don't delay any further.”
The department is planning to open a temporary “crisis stabilization facility” in Middlesex and has two requests for proposals out for new secure juvenile facilities in Vergennes and South Burlington, Winters said.
The attorney representing the town of Newbury did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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