Content warning: This article contains text describing the sexual assault, rape, and abuse of minors.
Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of a multi-part series.
The State of Vermont has agreed to a $4.5 million settlement in a civil lawsuit filed in December 2021 on behalf of seven youth formerly lodged at Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center. The lawsuit, which was filed against 22 state employees accused of abusing the seven plaintiffs, alleged appalling abuse and neglect between 2016 and 2020.
“The state is not acknowledging any wrongdoing, obviously, like in every civil case, but they’re willing to resolve it for $4.5 million,” said attorney Brooks McArthur, who represented the seven youth plaintiffs. He continued, “I think it’s a recognition that they were treated so poorly while they were there… I mean, it was shocking.”
While it is extremely rare for defendants to admit wrongdoing when a settlement is reached, in this case, the terms of the settlement feel particularly bleak. The State of Vermont’s continued employment of those listed in the lawsuit, as well as its history of flouting previous settlements regarding the treatment of youth at Woodside, gives little hope for changes in our state’s system when it comes to caging youth.
Of the 22 Vermont state employees named as defendants in the lawsuit, eleven of them are still employed full time by the state in a variety of roles, often directly working with youth. Curiously, given the facility’s closing in 2020, two of the defendants, Anthony Brice and Christopher Hamlin, appear on the Vermont State Employee salary database with job titles of Woodside Youth Counselor and Woodside Youth Counselor II, respectively.
When totaled, these eleven employees’ salaries amount to about $850,000 paid annually by the State of Vermont. Former Department of Children and Families Commissioner Kenneth Schatz, who is one of these 11 people, is also currently listed as a temporary state employee earning $69.12 per hour; his salary is not included in this calculation.
After Woodside’s closure, Vermont sent multiple youth to adult detention facilities, where they were kept sequestered from adult prisoners and under 24-hour surveillance. As an alternative, Vermont has also sent youth to the Sununu Youth Services Center, which is slated to close in 2024 and recently settled its own massive lawsuit for $100 million after nearly 450 former residents alleged physical and sexual abuse perpetrated within Sununu’s facilities. In 2022, then-Commissioner of DCF Sean Brown told VT Digger that DCF knew about the allegations against Sununu and decided to contract with it anyway after conducting its own evaluation.
Those who were abused at Sununu can now file claims with the Youth Development Center Claims Office. According to a document titled “Guidelines for Valuing Claims for Settlement Purposes” on their website, an award “for sexual abuse may not exceed $1,500,000.00 and an award for physical abuse may not exceed $150,000.00.” A frighteningly dystopian worksheet included in the claim filing packet asks individuals to total the ways they were abused, find the correlating base pay dollar amount (for example, “Anal or Genital Rape” correlates to a base pay amount of $200,000; “Other Touching (Groping)” is worth $50,000), and add them up. Claimants are then asked to fill out a chart reminiscent of a high school math homework assignment (see below) to calculate the adjusted frequency at which they experienced sexual or physical abuse.
The worksheet continues on in this fashion, asking claimants to “find your frequency multiplier” and then add additional dollar amounts for various aggravating factors — sexual abuse resulting in pregnancy is worth an additional $200,000, for instance — before coming to a final monetary settlement. This process is undoubtedly re-traumatizing for people suffering in the wake of the abuse perpetrated against them.
Abuse of youth in the juvenile detention facilities is widespread and the recent local settlement should come as no surprise. The State of Vermont’s shame in this settlement stems not only from its refusal to admit wrongdoing but from its ongoing acceptance of the abuse that will always come with caging people of all ages. That the State continues to view Sununu and other detention options as an appropriate placements for youth in its care demonstrates their cold-hearted inability to see these youth as real people whose lives will be affected by the trauma inflicted by their time in state custody.
Until prisons are abolished, our youth (and adults) will continue to be forced to sit with friends, parents, brothers, sisters, and lawyers to use worksheets to calculate the price of their abuse, trauma, and rape.
An apology or admission of guilt would indicate that the State of Vermont wants to change. Instead, their actions make abundantly clear that they prefer to continue acting as they have been: sending “problem children” away, subjecting them to incarceration and abuse, and then opening their coffers to pay out anyone who challenges them.
For more information about Woodside and Vermont’s juvenile justice system you can read The Rake’s ongoing series on the topic. The next installment in this series will look at the State’s future plans to build various secure sites throughout Vermont.