The service workers in Vermont’s Department for Children and Families say the conditions they have worked in for years are untenable, and are pleading for state action to give them better resources to deal with the state’s troubled youth.
Officials held a joint justice Committee hearing at the statehouse on Thurs. where officials spoke about solutions. There, members of the Vermont State Employee Association (VSEA) called on Governor Phil Scott to declare a state of emergency for the department’s family services, saying bringing more beds of any type for Vermont’s vulnerable youth will make a difference
Steve Howard, the executive director of VSEA said, “The system is imploding…this is a public safety crisis.”
“Our members are desperate,” Howard went on, “and they are watching as good people, experienced and competent with DCF service are making decisions they know they shouldn’t make and would never make. But they have no other options.”
The Dept. for Children and Families Commissioner Chris Winters says they have just 65 percent of the treatment capacity they had before the pandemic with just 100 beds available statewide.
Winters said, “We’re seeing acute care at levels that we’ve never seen before.”
The hardest hit areas are the community-based residential systems, as the department still tries to recover from the extensive abuse that took place at the Woodside Juvenile Facility in Colchester, forcing the state to demolish it and build a new residential facility.
“Woodside’s shadow still looms large over DCF in everything we do when building a system of care that doesn’t repeat the mistakes that were made,” said Winters.
After the legislature instructed DCF to construct both short and long-term solutions in April, the department proposed short-term plans on Thurs. to include renovations to the Middlesex therapeutic community residence by early 2024, as well as other facilities in Windham and Newbury, with a different emphasis.
DCF Deputy Commissioner Aryka Radke said those facilities will be, “for longer-term stabilization, so not necessarily two weeks, but up to six months.”
The projects will be paid for by money that was previously allocated to Woodside, and Winters says no independent providers have come forward to provide care for the youth that would be staying in the renovated facilities.
“We would at least have a place for our staff to serve those youth in a safe way that is not an emergency room, is not a police station conference room,” Winters said, “we are putting kids in some inappropriate situations, and we’re putting staff in those situations.”
Jennifer Fitch, the Commissioner of Vermont Buildings and General Services, says this plan is the most feasible in the near term and was one of the fastest solutions to bringing immediate relief on the system.
But Howard says his members aren’t confident the plans will come to fruition.
“So many elements of these proposals have been on the table for so long. So many efforts toward a solution have failed to materialize,” said Howard.
Winters says the department’s long-term plans to address this issue are still being worked out, and Howard added that the effect of the lack of beds for youth is spilling out into communities, with community partners like law enforcement and hospitals even starting to give up on the current programs.