Seven Days reporter discusses article detailing violence at Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center
Seven Days published "The Loss of Grace" Wednesday, a 16-page special report investigating violence at Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center. Reporter Joe Sexton joined Vermont Edition to discuss the story. We've provided an excerpt of their conversation below, but we recommend listening to the full conversation provided above to hear more from Sexton, and a further conversation on Woodside and institutional settings with juvenile defender Kerrie Johnson.
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend pressing play on the audio posted above. For accessibility, we also provide a transcript of the show. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Mikaela Lefrak: This is Vermont Edition. I'm Mikaela Lefrak. We'll start today's show with a warning. The story at the center of our conversation today is a harrowing one. It involves child abuse, neglect and self harm. So please do take care as you listen to today's show. The story centers on Woodside, Vermont’s former juvenile detention and rehabilitation center in Essex, it closed down three years ago. Around that time investigative journalist Joe Sexton moved to Vermont. For 25 years, Joe worked as a reporter and editor at the New York Times before going to ProPublica, the news publication known for its in-depth investigations. When he moved to Vermont in 2020. With his family, Joe started to hear about stories of abuse in the state's carceral system. He followed that trail to Woodside. The stories he would eventually uncover about the children detained there are shocking. Today, Seven Days published his work in a cover story called “The Loss of Grace.” And Joe joins us today to discuss it. Joe. Welcome to Vermont Edition.
Joe Sexton: Thank you so so much for having me. I'm my greatest hope is that this story finds an audience and Vermont can you know, plot a new way forward.
Mikaela Lefrak: And what what a story it is. Listeners, you can join the conversation as well today. Have you had experience with the juvenile detention system in Vermont? Have you had a chance to read it Joe Sexton's piece in Seven Days? Give us a call. If so, our numbers 800-639-2211. You could also email us at email@example.com. So, Joe for for many folks in Vermont the story of Woodside is familiar on on a broad level at least. It was a place that was supposed to rehabilitate juvenile offenders, and it could house about 30 kids at a time. But in 2020 it closed down following federal lawsuits about staff's use of extent excessive restraint. How did you first hear about Woodside being a relative newcomer to the state?
Joe Sexton: No, I am an outsider. And as I settled here with my wife and twin daughters, and I began to sort of integrate myself into Vermont life and Vermont journalism community. I started paying attention to postings on VTDigger or in Seven Days and you know, I think I like many people, like many outsiders had a impression of Vermont, and however naive or you know, of ignorance. There was, you know, it was as a place of virtuous people and, you know. And, you know, there were folks dying in prison on almost a weekly basis, there was a resolution of a scandal involving elder care. Were a gentleman who had been sent to a family to live with one to, you know, dead in a pond. It seemed like, every other month, there was a new sheriff under investigation or local prosecutor. And so I was like, Well, you know, Vemont has a lot more to it, and some of it is dark.
Mikaela Lefrak: So for for a while there you were reading stories, that journalist said, VTDigger, Seven Days, Vermont Public and other publications were breaking about Woodside that that did lead to its closure. And your story, though, it centers around one girl, Grace Welch, who was Grace?
Joe Sexton: So Grace is a child of rural Vermont and she grew up in Orange County. Her family, her clan, were known as the Welch boys. Her dad was among the Welch boys, and they were hard working men who worked in logging in machine operators. And she was a kid who loved the outdoors, she could ride a bike by age 3, she could switch hit on the baseball field at 5. She loved animals, deeply loved horses had a real connection with them. She loved being, you know, in the wilds of Vermont. The but there were, you know, tough circumstances in her life as well. There were questions of, you know, poverty. And, you know, her family members her mom struggled with some issues that she's been public about. And when Grace ultimately went off to school, she wound up according to her, her grandma and her ma, having a real difficult go. And she was, you know, even in first and second grade, being taken to a seclusion room inside the school and kept there for her behavioral issues. And by the age of 11 the state of Vermont had taken custody of Grace. And she would be launched on a series of placements in hospitals and specialized schools and out of state facilities. And ultimately, at age 13, she would have her first visit to Woodside.
The truth of Woodside is that it was a tragedy hiding in plain sight. ... The very fact that it was incapable of treating and managing, you know, the most acutely challenging and traumatized children who wound up there was almost a stipulated fact from everyone.Seven Days reporter Joe Sexton
Mikaela Lefrak: And what did you learn about her time at Woodside? You gained access to a lot of information for this story about it.
Joe Sexton: Yeah, her first day there was, you know, miserable. And, you know, I do want to take care to, you know, to be fair. Grace. And all the kids who were sent to Woodside, right? People, kids who were sent to Woodside came either in two ways. One through the criminal justice system. If kids had done something run afoul of the law, they could be sent there. It was Vermont's only secure facility for adolescents. They could also be placed there if children had been determined to be a threat to themselves or others. And so Grace was so they can be challenging kids. There's no doubt about it. And Grace was a smart and willful, and even defiant girl. And when she was there in 2016, as a 13 year old, she was kept naked and isolated on what was known as the north unit at Woodside, which was a set of four grim cells where kids were sent.
Mikaela Lefrak: Why would you ever keep a child naked?
Joe Sexton: I mean, the the argument was that somehow, if she had clothing, she could fashion you know it into something that she could harm herself with, a ligature or, and so, you know, there she was provided with, you know, a suicide smock and she was, but she was denied the education she was supposed to be getting there. You know, the profound harm done by young kids, adolescents, you know, locked up in what lawyers would ultimately argue amounted to, you know, solitary confinement. You know, she’d compensated pretty quickly, she put on a lot of weight as a consequence of the medications. She was taking, as well as the lack of any kind of exercise the. So she spent really sort of five very difficult months in what became known as the north unit. She was sent to court dirty and stinking for court appearances about her future. The end all of this was laid out and known to senior people at Vermont's Department for Children Families. Kerrie Johnson, who you'll hear from later, a lawyer with the defender general's office, met with the director of Woodside, his name was Jay Simons. He had no particular training in the care of adolescents, no mental health expertise. He was a former prison boss, who had run the prison in Newport. And he was there as well as the Deputy Commissioner for the Department for Children and Families. And Kerrie made the case for Grace's release, you know, this has to stop. This child deserves better. This child deserves humane treatment.
Mikaela Lefrak: And the argument was for her to be returned back to her family?
Joe Sexton: Correct. And ultimately, you know, Kerrie prevailed, but she made this case in person to them. And the grievance that she was formally filing was denied on the very day that it was made.
Mikaela Lefrak: And so this story follows Grace through many years in and out of different facilities, both in Vermont and outside, but primarily focuses on her time at Woodside to just to let listeners know that I really urge everyone to read the entirety of this piece. But Grace eventually did leave Woodside she was able to go back to her family. But, but the story does not end well.
Joe Sexton: For now she is returned to Woodside through three years later, as a 16 year old. Well, if the audience doesn't know, Grace is dead. You know, she died jut shy of her 19th birthday of an overdose. So in one of her interviews with a when the countless therapists and professionals she'd see over the years, she said, Look, you know, I'm a kid who acts up, I get the cops called. And she had in 2019. In May of 2019. She had gotten the cops called, she had taken a truck belonging to a friend of her father's for a dangerous joyride. And she had been brought to Woodside. The end the weeks that she would spend there captured, much of it captured on videos taken by the staff at Woodside, would really once they were revealed help lead to the closing of Woodside. But again, naked, sometimes streaked with her own waist, she was found one time by a EMT who had been called as a consequence of a 911 call naked in her cell. So cold that she was close to hypothermia, her menstrual blood and urine on the floor. And the EMT was so alarmed by what she saw. She actually wrote directly to the director of Woodside and said, you know, what is going on, this can't be so.
Mikaela Lefrak: The director Jay Simons. What was the result of that inquiry?
Joe Sexton: Oh, nothing. I mean, ultimately, you know, Kerrie Johnson would bring another case on Grace's behalf seeking her release again. But, you know, there would be multiple episodes in which Grace was while naked, sometimes physically restrained. You know, the videos that were taken capture her screaming during each of the restraints. And in the most, you know, ghastly episode. And how the story begins. Grace was in her a cell completely naked. Her own excrement smeared on her. She's absolutely in crisis. And she begins to insert segments of wire into her right forearm. It's all being filmed by a staff member through the window of Grace's cell. And it's clear that that staff member is uncomfortable with what is taking place, although she does not move to intervene. And at one point, she engages in a conversation with another staffer about how unpleasant things have become, and the toll it was taking on the people who worked at Woodside. And one of the other staffers says, “Well, I'm emotionally dead inside.” And the female staffer says she can't even talk about what goes on at Woodside with her own spouse. So, Grace, ultimately is released in July of 2019. As a consequence of Kerrie Johnson's work, and she's returned home to her folks, and she manages to, you know, to start to navigate you know, her future. She graduates from high school, picks up basketball, she became passionate about and, you know, ultimately, she finds her first boyfriend, and begs her grandma and mom to let the boyfriend stay with her in their home. And within weeks, Grace was dead of an overdose.
Mikaela Lefrak: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with the journalist Joe Sexton about his new piece in Seven Days called “The Loss of Grace.” It tells the story of Grace Welch, a child who was held at Woodside juvenile detention facility in Essex, Joe, in this story, you bring up the names and roles of many people employed by the state of Vermont folks who it is implied in your story could have and should have, in many instances, acted differently to better protect children like Grace, from abuse from their own self harm and from the abuse of other adults. What kind of responses Did you receive when you reach out? I know you reached out to all the people that you name in this story, what kind of responses did you receive about their behavior?
The story represents, what I think it is, was a determination to pull together the historic, documented history and lay it out in as thorough and vivid a way as I could. ... But the greatest service I hope the story is is to the children who were held at Woodside.Seven Days reporter Joe Sexton
Joe Sexton: Yeah, it was one of the most sort of disheartening aspects of this reporting effort. The first person I reached out to virtually was Ken Schatz, who was the former commissioner of the Department for Families and Children, and who was ultimately, you know, responsible for Woodside and its operation. I reached out to Jay Simons, who was the director, reached out to the former Attorney General, TJ Donovan, who wound up having his lawyers his office defend what had happened at Woodside. And among the claims made by his office were that the 8th Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment didn't apply to children. I found that to be arresting reading. And none of them would engage with me. And the thing is, I think they have a story to tell. The truth of Woodside is that it was a tragedy hiding in plain sight. Right? The problems are what's at the very fact that it was incapable of treating and managing, you know, the most acutely challenging and traumatized children who wound up there was a was almost a stipulated fact from everyone from Ken Schatz, from the legislature from the people who work there. At one point, Jay Simons was on the witness stand in a court proceeding related to Woodside. And lawyer was asking, well, you know, would you say, Mr. Simons that Woodside was an inappropriately inappropriate place for children for the last 18 months or so? And his answer was, oh, no, it was inappropriate for them from the time I took the job in 2011. And this is in 2019. So, you know, the, and I just want to be both truthful and modest. I don't think it was a great feat of reporting. The story represents, what I think it is, was a determination to pull together the historic, documented history and lay it out in as thorough and vivid a way as I could. And name the people who were in positions to have done differently. But the greatest service I hope the story is is to the children who were held at Woodside. Seven of them sued DCF and the state of Vermont for their treatment at Woodside. But in all the legal paperwork from the time they were being represented by the defender general's office to the time they were represented by a lawyer in a civil lawsuit again, their names were never revealed. They were known as juvenile one, or juvenile eight, or by their initials, TH or GW for Grace Welch. They had names, they have histories, they have families who loved them. Their stories needed to be understood and told more fully.
Note: This is a partial transcript of the conversation. To hear the rest of the show, including input from juvenile defender Kerrie Johnson, listen to the audio provided above.
Broadcast at noon Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.