Abuse and Neglect on DCF’s Watch: Cruelty at Woodside

Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of a multi-part series. Read part one.

Vermont’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) purportedly exists to protect the children in its care; however, youth lodged at Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Colchester had the opposite experience. DCF displayed well-documented patterns of abuse and neglect of the children at Woodside, and without legal action, it is unclear whether DCF would have ever taken concerns about this abuse and neglect seriously. 

A 33-page civil lawsuit filed in December 2021 on behalf of seven youth formerly lodged at Woodside details horrific abuse by 22 employees that allegedly occurred at the facility between 2016 and 2020. Many of the defendants are still employed by the State of Vermont. Woodside officially closed on October 17, 2020, but its complicated and disturbing legacy continues to traumatize those who were placed there as children in the custody of Vermont’s Department of Children and Families or Department of Corrections (DOC).

The 2021 lawsuit details harsh policies enacted at Woodside under the leadership of its director, Jay Simons. Hired as the director of Woodside in 2011 after working as the superintendent at three different Vermont adult correctional facilities – in Rutland, South Burlington, and Newport – from 2004 to 2011, Simons was the architect of what he called “Dangerous Behavioral Control Techniques,” which he developed while working at the adult facilities. He then brought these techniques to Woodside, where he trained his staff to use them to force children into submission using painful physical domination that included the hyperextension of limbs and pressure applied to prone childrens’ backs. Although Simons described his wards as “the most vulnerable of Vermont’s children,” he equipped guards at Woodside with riot shields and metal handcuffs when confronting unarmed youth experiencing mental health crises. 

While Simons was the orchestrator of these brutal policies, he was joined by Assistant Director Dr. Aron Steward, whose tenure at Woodside spanned 2014-2019. Steward holds a Ph.D in Counseling Psychology. Simons and Steward both signed Woodside Orders for Restraint/Seclusion which could be requested by staff and allowed the physical restraint or solitary confinement of children at Woodside.

A previous lawsuit, filed in June 2019 by Disability Rights Vermont, similarly documented that youth at Woodside were being subjected to “inhumane and degrading conditions.” These included unnecessary use of restraints, unnecessary use of seclusion and isolation, failure to properly supervise children in seclusion or isolation, and inadequate mental health treatment of actively suicidal children. In August 2019, Judge Geoffrey Crawford reviewed video footage of an incident at Woodside involving the restraint of a girl streaked with feces. He stated that the video “demonstrates in the space of a few minutes Woodside’s limited ability to care for a child who is experiencing symptoms of serious mental illness” and issued an injunction requiring that DCF change its practices.

Prior to any lawsuits being filed, external audits of Woodside’s practices revealed their inhumane treatment of children. In 2018, the Commission on Accreditation of Residential Facilities (CARF) – whose accreditation DCF desperately sought in 2011 in its unrealized quest for Woodside to become a treatment facility – issued a report suggesting that Woodside “eliminate all outdated policies associated with use of force or a correctional approach to aggression management and to consider revising current seclusion/restraint procedures to reflect only those nonviolent practices and training that are authorized.” 

Shortly afterward, in October 2018, Vermont DCF’s Residential Licensing and Special Investigations Unit (RLSI) issued 11 separate reports finding significant violations of Vermont regulations regarding Woodside staff’s treatment of 6 individual children out of the total of 12 children placed there at the time. In addition to finding evidence of excessive use of restraints, seclusion, and isolation, RLSI noted that Woodside staff was subjecting children to inhumane and degrading conditions. 

There are nationally recognized best practices regarding the seclusion and restraint of children that could have been incorporated in place of Jay Simons’s oppressive Dangerous Behavioral Control Techniques. These state that interventions should be “safe, proportionate, and appropriate to the severity of the behavior, and the resident’s…personal history (including any history of physical or sexual abuse).” In 2019, JKM Training, Inc. was hired to train Woodside staff in the nationally recognized Safe Crisis Management System of de-escalation to replace Simons’s systems. The trainer was interviewed in December of 2019 and informed investigators that Simons told Woodside staff members to “go back to the old techniques” if the Safe Crisis Management System techniques did not work.

In terms of protecting suicidal children, RLSI’s findings detailed an incident in June 2018 when a juvenile attemped suicide while in seclusion after a known history of recent suicide attempts. Not only did Woodside staff fail to adequately supervise the juvenile, but staff prevented the transport of this juvenile to the hospital for evaluation after the serious suicide attempt. Additionally, Woodside staff misled staff from the local mental health agency about the severity of the suicide attempt; therefore the youth was not evaluated at a hospital. According to the DRVT lawsuit, then-DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said in a January 2019 letter that “Woodside would no longer house actively suicidal children and if a child became suicidal, the child would immediately be transported to a hospital.” Schatz later rescinded his statement and declared that he was assured by medical providers that placing youth in Woodside’s North Unit in isolation was often preferable to placing them in the Emergency Department at a hospital.

In June 2019, the practice of holding suicidal youth at Woodside was shown to be ineffective in a ghastly sequence of events. A youth attempted suicide, and in response, Woodside staff forcibly removed her clothing and placed her in a safety smock. The youth was screened by mental health professionals, and was deemed eligible for inpatient psychiatric treatment. Despite notification that inpatient psychiatric care was required, the child was held in isolation at Woodside for days. The day after her initial suicide attempt, the youth fashioned a ligature out of her safety smock and the smock was removed, leaving her naked. Another four days later, the juvenile attempted suicide by swallowing a large object. After staff dislodged it, the juvenile slammed her head into the steel door of their cell repeatedly. 12 hours later, the juvenile was finally transported to the ER at UVM Medical Center, 6 days after her initial suicide attempt. The inability of DCF and Woodside staff to keep suicidal children safe was clear.

In April 2020, the DCF settled its lawsuit with Disability Rights Vermont, agreeing to ensure that youth in need of mental health crisis services received appropriate care. They also agreed to establish new protocols to handle emergency safety situations and to transition to a nationally-recognized model of de-escalation techniques rather than those developed by Jay Simons, which were not supported by any evidence whatsoever. However, in July 2020 Disability Rights Vermont filed a complaint in court because the state violated parts of the settlement after the unacceptable restraint of a child at Woodside resulted in 5 staff members being suspended. 

Certain themes are evident throughout each of the lawsuits. Each one describes incidents in graphic detail of youth being kept in isolation, being subjected to painful restraints, and being denied access to medical care after suicide attempts. In each case, DCF was made aware of the cruelty and neglect of the children at Woodside. And in each case, there was little to no intervention or acknowledgement that any abuse was happening. Time and time again, DCF proved its negligence and unwillingness to improve conditions for the children it purports to protect.

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