Vermont group home for adolescent boys in limbo

By Eileen Weber
January 9th, 2023

If there were plans in your town to build a group home for teen boys in the juvenile justice system, would you be concerned? What if that group home appeared to be a replacement for a similar facility that was shut down two years ago amidst reports of neglect and abuse? That’s the situation Newbury, Vermont residents are facing.

Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex, a town 90 minutes from Newbury, closed in 2020 after dwindling capacity and years of complaints that the youth residing there were mistreated.

Fast forward to 2022 when a plan for a group home for adolescent boys is proposed that to many residents appears to be Woodside 2.0. Initially, a permit for that proposal was denied. However, the Environmental Division of the Vermont Superior Court reversed that decision this fall.

The treatment center would be leased to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and operated by the Vermont Permanency Initiative, a subsidiary of Becket Family of Services, a nonprofit organization based in Orford, NH.

The Vermont Legislature Joint Committee met on October 25 to discuss whether the proposal for the facility could be allowed to proceed. One argument is that the facility meets zoning regulations because it fits the definition of a residential facility or group home and not a juvenile detention center.

But opponents to the project believe it is a juvenile detention center and calling it a group home is, at the very least, a misnomer. The committee has since deferred the decision, collectively determining that more information on a number of “outstanding questions,” is needed. As a result, the state is not currently taking any immediate action.

In the meantime, the Newbury Selectboard voted to appeal the Superior Court’s decision to reverse the denial of the permit. In a released statement, the board pushed back on the notion that the facility should be considered a group home.

“We wholeheartedly reject the notion that any juvenile who commits a crime is, by default, mentally disabled. It’s clear that the proposed facility is a detention center first,” they said, “and any mental health services they offer are secondary. We hope the Supreme Court can see through this clear perversion of statute by the state in an attempt to circumvent the laws and will of the people.”

Judge Thomas G. Walsh, who ruled on the permit reversal, pointed to a state statute that would protect residential care facilities and group homes from exclusionary zoning. A group home serving eight or less people with disabilities would be considered a “permitted single-family residential use of property.”

Those against the project are opposed to the idea that the DCF would be the lessee because the organization was largely blamed for the alleged abuse at Woodside.

One of the facility’s biggest opponents is a group of Newbury residents that call themselves Concerned4Newbury and are represented by counsel.

The group initially voiced concerns about the facility at a land use hearing in August. DCF and the Becket proposed the project with plans to remodel and update security features at a two-story building on its 280-acre property into the six-bed facility for boys. These boys aged 11 to 17 years old are involved in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems and are deemed at risk to themselves or others.

Since Woodside closed two years ago, minors who commit offenses are often housed in adult prisons. In some cases, the state has been shuffling them to the Sununu Youth Center in New Hampshire. As one example from this past summer, the VT Digger reported a 15-year-old Bennington girl charged with aggravated assault and viewed as harmful to herself and others was sent to Vermont’s only women’s prison because there was nowhere else to put her.

The Becket group sees the Newbury project as an opportunity to provide a much-needed resource. Community members, however, have concerns like how secure the facility might be, how rural the building site is and how far this rural facility is from first responders.

The Environmental Division of the court became involved over how the facility may ultimately impact its environment.

Until the state resolves the situation, adult prisons may be the only options for Vermont’s teens in the juvenile justice system.

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