BENNINGTON — Minors with mental health issues who come into contact with the criminal justice system are an ongoing problem in Vermont, and there’s no dedicated place to house them, according to those who handle these cases in court.
A juvenile under 16 can be brought into custody as either an adult, a delinquent or a child in need of care. A minor accused of a serious, violent crime who is charged as an adult will most often wind up in an adult correctional facility and be held in solitary confinement, separating them from the general population.
When they are brought in as a delinquent or child in need of care, they are placed into the custody of the state Department for Children and Families, which can either move them into a foster home or a residential placement. The difficulty arises when the young person’s needs are too acute for some of these placements. Vermont has nowhere they can reliably and consistently place a minor with high needs, authorities agree.
For children over 16, there are currently zero beds available in Vermont for those with mental illness who are criminally violent, in need of a secure facility and in trouble with the law. Unless there is an acute need for hospitalization, the Department of Mental Health will refuse a bed for treatment at the state-run hospital, and there are few, if any, other facilities with the ability to take them in.
“We do not have any juvenile placement that can deal with that particular level of need,” Bennington County Deputy State’s Attorney Jared Bianchi said.
“There would need to be a hospital level of care needed, as defined by DMH,” he added. And in cases deemed “behavioral,” as opposed to a mental health issue, “They’re just not getting in the door, especially if it’s on the borderline.”
He said DMH handles issues of clear mental health illness. Those who don’t meet that criteria aren’t “considered the sort of a need for a mental health bed. ... So, we can ask for placements, like at (the John H. Sununu Youth Services Center in New Hampshire) or other areas around us, but there’s nothing that we control. There is no ‘no-refusal’ place like Woodside (Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Colchester) used to be before they closed, a locked facility for juveniles.”
Woodside closed its doors in October 2020 because of bad management, according to Erica Marthage, Bennington County’s state’s attorney. There were plans to open a new 16-bed secure, step-down recovery residence in Essex, but so far, that hasn’t happened yet and possibly won’t in the foreseeable future, she said. Right now, those kids are on a merry-go-round of options from a dwindling list of beds available.
“Woodside had various wings, and some of the beds were emergency beds for this kind of situation,” Marthage said. “They closed because it was being run poorly. The same people opposed to forcing people into treatment were like, ‘This is unacceptable.’ The only solution was to close the doors. And they did that without an alternative, no backup whatsoever. They just keep pushing it down the road. And I think now we’re suffering the consequences of that.”
Woodside was different in that it was controlled by the state. If Vermont wanted a minor placed there, it happened. DCF controlled the door. DCF doesn’t control the door on any of these kinds of facilities anymore.
Minors over 16 with mental illness who might not need acute hospital care and haven’t committed serious, violent acts are now left out in the cold more often than not. They are, in many instances, given a citation or released on conditions, and wind up back on the street with no treatment, or placed in an adult correctional facility.
“We had a kid staying at the hospital, because there was” nowhere else to place for him, Marthage said. In the hospitalization Marthage cited, she said the youth was confined to a very small space that lacked windows.
“We currently don’t have any solutions available in that situation. Often, if they are acute enough, they can stay at the hospital until a bed opens somewhere, assuming (the hospital) can hold on to them. If the child doesn’t have some serious issues going into a situation like that, they definitely will coming out of it.”
Marthage referenced numerous cases of children over the age of 16 who are caught up in a system that is ill-prepared for them. These kids, sometimes with serious charges involving violent incidents, might require both treatment and a secure facility to house them. In Vermont in 2023, that’s doesn’t exist.
“We get calls about kids who self-harm or could be violent, or suicidal, involving drugs and alcohol,” Marthage said. “In theory, some of those kids can go to the Brattleboro Retreat, but that, too, is severely limited.
The Retreat is a private, nonprofit mental health facility in Brattleboro that houses teens and adults. Being a private facility, as opposed to a state-run one, the Retreat can and sometimes does refuse intakes, and the demand for space at the Retreat is dire. Bennington competes with the rest of the state for any available space for these kids.
Vermont often also reaches out to the Sununu center, but beds are severely limited there, and space is prioritized for New Hampshire residents. There are other locations throughout the U.S., but none are “no-refusal,” meaning the state must wait until a bed becomes available or can be turned down. Communities in Bennington County end up with teens released back into the community or inappropriately at the local emergency room.
Marthage described the case of a kid in the middle of a January cold snap.
“The judge issued him a citation to come to court on Monday. This was a Friday afternoon. He’s homeless. He’s a runaway. We don’t even know where his family is. Now, he’s not going to make it to the next day. So we ended up doing something way outside the box. We charged him with something else. We’re going to hold him on an arrest warrant with a $200 bail to put [him] in jail until Monday, so that he didn’t freeze to death that weekend. We shouldn’t have to do that all the time.”
In serious violent crime cases, teens can and do get placed in adult facilities. Generally speaking, that would require them to not be in sight or sound contact with any other adult inmates, basically solitary confinement for a minor with mental struggles.
A recent case in Bennington involved a teenage female with possible mental health issues who was accused of violently pistol-whipping a victim. There were no facilities in the state that could take her, and no space at the Sununu center. The charges barred her from being released into the community as a danger to herself and others, and she didn’t qualify for acute hospitalization. The teenager, 15 at the time of the incident, wound up in solitary isolation in an upstate adult jail.
“It is very difficult to find a placement for that child, if not impossible,” Bianchi said. “DCF has a process where they have a case review committee, and they try to identify placements as far as Nevada, Alabama, Florida. If they say, ‘No,’ there is no answer for that right now. They could be released on conditions and on bail.”
“There’s really no custodial option for those guys,” he said. “If you’re talking about a kid coming in from Massachusetts who’s 17 or 18 and commits crimes, there’s really no place to put them in right now. There’s really no DCF custody option for a young adult. Although there’s Family Court jurisdiction, there’s no custody option. There’s no facility that will take an 18-year-old as a child. Our only facilities for a 16 to 18 year old is in prison.
“At some point, we need the resources and the legal flexibility to address these kids’ needs,” Bianchi said. “We don’t have that right now, that physical infrastructure to keep these kids safe while we figure out what they need. There are no easy answers.”