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A civil lawsuit has been filed on behalf of seven Vermont youths that claim 22 Department for Children and Families employees, including a former commissioner, allowed abuse of juveniles for five years at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex. Even when notified in 2018 that abuse at the Essex facility violated state regulations, the department ignored the warning, according to the suit.

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BURLINGTON — A civil lawsuit has been filed on behalf of seven Vermont youths that claim 22 Department for Children and Families employees, including a former commissioner, allowed abuse of juveniles for five years at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex. 

The federal lawsuit outlines — sometimes in graphic terms — the alleged abuse committed by DCF employees between 2016 and 2020 and that, even when notified in 2018 that abuse at the Essex facility violated state regulations, the department ignored the warning, according to the court papers.

Woodside's director at the time was Jay Simons, one of the main defendants in the lawsuit.

In one case, an emergency medical technician, who had responded to Woodside to check a girl for a concussion, “called DCF’s child abuse hotline and reported the girl was naked, covered in feces, urine and menstrual blood and was nearing hypothermia,” the lawsuit said.

That incident is just one example of a series of possible red flags mentioned in the 33-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Monday by Burlington lawyers Brooks G. McArthur and David J. Williams, on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Many of the juveniles committed to Woodside, which the state closed this fall, had been physically, mentally and/or sexually abused by caregivers before DCF interceded.

But, when the children arrived at the state-run facility, the lawsuit notes, abuse allegedly continued at the hands of other people. 

The plaintiffs maintain they “were subjected to obscene abuse at the hands of state officials, who were charged with their care and supervision.” The lawsuit notes that the children, after arriving at the Essex facility, “were physically assaulted and sometimes stripped of their clothing by the Woodside staff members who demanded compliance with their orders.”

The opening introduction paragraph to the lawsuit notes, “Many times, these same children were then confined to isolation cells in Woodside’s so-called ‘North Unit’ for days, weeks and sometimes months at a time.”

Repeated attempts to reach current DCF Commissioner Sean Brown, who is not part of the lawsuit, were unsuccessful.

Assistant Attorney General David McLean, who is assigned to DCF, also did not respond to a message seeking comment. Attorney General T.J. Donovan referred all inquiries to the DCF.

The 22 named defendants, who are sued in their individual capacities at the time, will have about three weeks to respond in writing to the court.

Other named defendants include former DCF Commissioner Kenneth Schatz, DCF Deputy Commissioners Karen Shea and Cindy Wolcott, and Policy and Operations Director Brenda Gooley.

Also named are Woodside Clinical Director Aron Steward, Operations Supervisors Kevin Hatin, Marcus Bunnell and John Dubuc, and staff members William Cathcart, Bryan Scrubb, Nicholas Weiner, David Martinez, Carol Ruggles, Tim Piette and Devin Rochon.

The other defendants, who held various jobs at DCF, are Amelia Harriman, Melanie D’Amico, Edwin Dale, Erin Longchamp, Christopher Hamlin and Anthony Brice.

Over the course of 297 paragraphs, McArthur and Williams allege questionable tactics and demand that the plaintiffs get medical expenses, along with compensatory and exemplary damages.

McArthur and Williams note that several abuse complaints were examined by DCF’s Residential Licensing and Special Investigations Unit, and multiple times the investigators found Woodside was not in compliance with state law and regulations. In one case involving four juveniles, the investigative unit reported in October 2018 that Woodside staff violated state law, it said. It added one month later an unrelated complaint involving one juvenile that also was deemed to have violated state law.

The detainees tell of abusive tactics — and many appear to be supported by video or reports, according to the wide-ranging lawsuit.

Chief Federal Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford, in an earlier lawsuit, watched one video that showed a girl sitting in her isolation cell, naked and covered in feces, as she inserts a wire into her arm while Woodside staff members do nothing, the lawsuit said. Crawford termed it a “horrific incident,” the court papers note.

Disruptive juveniles were isolated in one wing at Woodside and were not allowed to leave their cell for a shower or to access the windowless day room, the lawsuit said. It said in some cases that they had their clothes cut off and were left in their underwear or paper gowns. In some cases, detainees were not allowed a mattress, bedding, books, or paper and pencil.

“Woodside detainees confined in the North Unit would not be allowed to flush their toilets and had to ask staff to flush away their waste. Detainees would sometimes have to sit with unflushed human waste for significant periods of time,” the lawsuit noted.

The former detainees appear to have been sprinkled across the state, because their cases were heard in various courts, including Chittenden, Franklin and Rutland counties, records show. Five of the juveniles have since turned 18 and are identified only by their initials.

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One plaintiff is identified as Cathy Welch of Corinth, who was appointed by the Orange County Probate Court to serve as the administrator of the estate of one juvenile girl who died from an accidental overdose in October. The seventh is a minor, but the legal claims are being made through his mother.

The lawsuit also maintains, when the state’s juvenile defender filed complaints about conditions at the Essex facility, Woodside officials retaliated against the children, interfered with their rights to legal counsel and pressured at least one to sign a note to his lawyers indicating they should withdraw a motion filed in family court in Rutland County for a protective order.

One main focus of the litigation was the introduction of the use of force system implemented by Jay Simons in 2011 when he was named to head Woodside, sometimes called the “Juvie Jail.” Simons called it “Dangerous Behavior Control Tactics,” and it had been used in adult prisons, where he had been a use of force instructor for the Corrections Department, the lawsuit said.

Under the direction of Simons, Woodside staff members “would apply rotational pressure to a juvenile’s joints, including wrists, shoulders and knees, and hyperextended shoulder and rotator cuff muscle groups. The use of Simons’ techniques sometimes caused excruciating pain that could lead to swelling and the possibility of limited range motion,” the lawsuit said.

The actions were contrary to national standards and Vermont law that prohibit the use of “pain inducement to obtain compliance,” it said.

The lawsuit also noted that, as part of the earlier federal lawsuit, the state reported to the judge that it was discontinuing the practice used by Simons. The Safe Crisis Management system was adopted, but a trainer later reported Simons had indicated if the new system didn’t work, to go back to the old techniques, the lawsuit said.

Todd Fountain of JKM Training suggested that Simons might be sabotaging its implementation, the lawsuit said. It appeared to be an effort to prove that “what they were doing (before the federal court intervention) was good,” the lawsuit said.

Woodside was established to deal with juveniles who had been adjudicated, or charged with delinquency or with a crime. It was built after two boys, ages 16 and 15, raped and killed a 12-year-old Essex Junction girl in May 1981; another girl survived the assaults.

With the construction of Woodside, all juveniles were expected to be treated in a humane and safe environment, and free from abuse, neglect, retaliation, humiliation, harassment and exploitation, the lawsuit said.

Several people have attempted to blow the whistle on DCF and Woodside, but it appears it fell on deaf ears, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit appears to pull all or many of those complaints together.

A registered nurse, Paul Capcara, said in a complaint in Juvenile Court that he reviewed conditions at Woodside.

“I have repeatedly testified about my concerns regarding the unusual and harmful practices at Woodside for over a year. DCF leadership has known about these dangerous conditions as the result of my testimony and that of other expert witnesses, as well as their own internal investigations. Despite this knowledge, the dangerous and harmful practices persist,” Capcara wrote.

DCF held a Woodside Stakeholders Meeting on Oct. 23, 2018, and the following day the juvenile defender wrote in an email to then-Commissioner Schatz a recap.

“I have seen things at (Woodside) that if perpetrated by a parent, would have likely resulted in substantiation, removal (of the child from the home) and criminal prosecution. As a former DCF investigator, it takes a lot to shock and dismay me. I am shocked and dismayed at Woodside on a regular basis. Moreover, the lack of accountability for staff who hurt residents and perpetuate a culture of silence in the face of residential mistreatment is deeply troubling,” the email said.

The lawsuit notes that some similar problems were reported in 2020 for at least one juvenile sent to the new Middlesex Adolescent Program in Washington County.

Abuse also was reported at the Natchez Trace Youth Academy in Tennessee — an out-of-state facility used by DCF, but Vermont officials refused to take corrective steps, the lawsuit said. In one case in 2017, a mother of a juvenile reported her child was being abused at Natchez, and there were reports of “choking kids out,” the lawsuit said. It insists state employees did not take the complaints seriously and continued to send Vermonters to the academy.

The state of West Virginia discontinued the use of Natchez in May 2015 based on complaints, the lawsuit said.

The nine-count lawsuit claims the defendants conspired to violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and the ban of excessive force.

The lawsuit also asserts the rights of due process were violated.

The plaintiffs also maintain their First Amendment right to petition government for a redress of grievances was violated when DCF staffers retaliated against at least two detainees in 2018.

The lawsuit also claims assault and battery and the intentional infliction of emotional harm. The lawsuit also makes claims of “grossly negligent and reckless supervision.”


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