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Vt. officials pitch privatization strategy to house youth offenders

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont administration officials Tuesday briefed key lawmakers on a new privatization strategy to address the crisis posed by a lack of treatment facilities for juvenile offenders. It comes less than a week after a judge gave the green light to a controversial plan to build a six-bed residential treatment facility for youth in Newbury.

“I want to assure you we are in a different place now and, in many ways, I am as frustrated as you are the last time we met that we haven’t found a permanent solution,” Agency of Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson told lawmakers. “We know we have work to do with the community to understand what it is and isn’t.”

The court’s go-ahead clears the way to fill a gap in the youth criminal justice system created after the Woodside juvenile facility in Essex closed two years ago. But Gov. Phil Scott says there’s still more work ahead.

“It will only meet a part of our needs. We will continue to work toward other approaches as well. It’s not just one facility but other facilities as well,” Scott said.

The Newbury facility, according to the briefing, would be the first step. The state is also working on standing up a separate temporary, state-owned treatment facility operated by a private service provider. “We will have a viable option to discuss with legislators within a week, two weeks,” Samuelson said.

The long-term plan would see the state get out of the business of building facilities and leave it to private contractors who would house and treat young offenders in a therapeutic setting.

“In the long term, we acknowledge that identifying a facility with a therapeutic provider that is not state staffed is likely in our best interest,” Samuelson said.

The Department for Children and Families is working on a report to lawmakers in the coming weeks that will outline the long-term strategy. The involvement of AHS’ Samuelson Tuesday marked a shift in how the Scott administration has dealt with this issue.

The Vermont State Employees Association’s Steve Howard says the state shouldn’t have been in this position in the first place. “Before you close a facility, make sure you have a new one ready to go. Not just because it’s inconvenient, because the lives of people in {DCF} Family Services matter,” Howard said. He says the union opposed closing Woodside and remains opposed to turning to privatized care. “What’s happening in DCF today while our members are paying the price is a management failure.”

While the state works on the long-term plan, they can also house young offenders at the Windham County Sheriff’s Office, and in some cases, in Vermont prisons.

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