An advocacy group for Vermonters with disabilities filed a lawsuit in June about conditions at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Colchester, the state’s only juvenile detention facility.
Lawyers for Disability Rights Vermont argued in federal court in Rutland on Monday that the judge should order a number of changes while the lawsuit is still underway because children at Woodside “are suffering immediate and irreparable harm.”
The changes requested included that staff at Woodside stop using current use of force techniques, reduce the number of residents placed in isolation and change staffing patterns so that staff members work no more than eight-hour shifts.
However, the state said that DRVT is requesting unreasonable action without sufficient evidence. The state argued in court filings that the proposed changes “would seriously impair staff’s ability to maintain safety and security for other residents and themselves.”
Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled that he would take the arguments under advisement, but did not order any changes be made.
The motion was filed as part of a lawsuit Disability Rights Vermont is bringing against the Department for Children and Families, which oversees Woodside. It houses juveniles ages 10 to 17 who are in DCF custody, have delinquency charges or adjudications, require significant treatment intervention, and/or exhibit harmful behavior toward themselves or others.
Lawyers at DRVT have argued the children at Woodside have disabilities and therefore fall within the purview of their advocacy work.
“We think that all kids there have some level of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the state has not conceded that point,” said A.J. Ruben, DRVT’s supervising attorney.
As Ruben explained, the Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
DRVT alleges that staff at Woodside use unnecessary force to restrain residents, that their seclusion and isolation practices harm residents’ mental health and that the facility does not provide adequate access to medical and psychiatric care.
DRVT’s complaint details examples of excessive use of force, including one case where the prosecution says staff restrained a juvenile with “a knee to her back and dragging her on the floor by her feet, which caused friction burns.”
According to the complaint, the facility lacks an adequate grievance system for residents. Also, the complaint says staff are overworked, which affects their treatment of residents.
Lawyers at DRVT argue that DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz and Woodside Director Jay Simons, both named as defendants, have known about these problems and have not taken adequate steps to respond to them. Specifically, the prosecution cited findings from DCF’s Residential Licensing and Special Investigations Unit, which were published in October.
According to the complaint, the RLSI Unit identified instances of unnecessary use of restraints, unnecessary uses of seclusion and isolation and subjecting children to inhumane and degrading conditions, among other state regulation violations.
The state said that lawyers at DRVT have misrepresented the conditions at the facility.
“Basically, they’re looking through a keyhole, they have limited information and they are looking at some extreme cases regarding incidents at Woodside,” said David McLean, the assistant attorney general of Vermont and a lawyer on this case.
However, McLean said that staff at DCF and Woodside have been working for months to address complaints raised in the past. He said the state has been working with different groups, including DRVT, to address the concerns raised in the October report.
“There is a process that began toward the end of last year where DCF had been working with stakeholders and seeking out advice from experts in the field, and actually engaged a consultant to come in and review Woodside’s operations as a whole,” he said.
The consultant DCF hired was the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA), which published a report July 11 and recommended a new use of force model at Woodside and some amendments to Woodside’s seclusion policy.
McLean said the recommendations from this report are being implemented, and that the new use of force model will take four to five months to institute.
DCF will also continue to work with interest groups to improve their practice, according to Luciana DiRuocco, DCF’s public information officer.
“We have been working in a collaborative process with DRVT and the Defender General’s office since before this lawsuit,” she said. “Due to this, we were surprised by this lawsuit, however we continue to work collaboratively on policy reform and other enhancements to Woodside. This includes consulting with an expert to assess de-escalation, restraint and seclusion practices.”
Karen Shea, the former deputy commissioner of DCF, who now holds a new role at the department, wrote in an affidavit that the state has done its job to address issues at Woodside.
“Throughout this process, DCF has actively engaged experts in assessing the need for change and implementation of specific improvements,” Shea said. “In my opinion. DRVT would prefer to substitute its own judgment for that of the experts that DCF has consulted.”
According to Ruben, the judge said in court Monday that he was likely to order another hearing in six weeks to hear testimony about the updated status of Woodside’s programs. Ruben explained that the ideal outcome for DRVT would be meaningful policy changes at Woodside, which would improve quality of life for the residents.
“We want them to stop using the current use of force system, to increase the amount of mental health treatments that are there and to decrease the amount of isolation and seclusion that occurs,” he said.
In Ellie Shemtov’s previous life, before she was ordained, she was the head of film cataloging at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. She was an active member of her synagogue there, and she frequently led services and chanted Torah.
However, she said it wasn’t until her marriage fell apart that she started on the path that would end in her becoming a rabbi and moving to work at the Rutland Jewish Center.
“My mother was a very angry person, and my whole childhood I was screamed at a lot,” Shemtov said. “I went from that into marriage with an alcoholic ... and I didn’t really have a clue who I was.”
After leaving her previous career behind, her plan was to go to school to become a cantor, the song leader in a synagogue. With her music degree, Shemtov has always valued the musical aspects of Jewish prayer.
When she arrived at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, New York, her classmates and teachers told her she should study to be a rabbi. It took three years and a lot of soul searching before Shemtov finally admitted they were right.
Between her cantorial and rabbinical studies, Shemtov was in school for 10 years. She was ordained in May 2014 and most recently worked at a congregation in Freehold, New Jersey. She began at the Rutland Jewish Center on July 1 and feels the congregation is a good fit for her.
“I saw many more opportunities here in every aspect of being a rabbi, and that’s already really come to fruition,” she said. “The way a service is conducted in this congregation is more in tune with the way I envision a service to be.”
Despite the appreciation for tradition, Shemtov has found the community at the center open to new ideas, which she appreciates.
“They’re open to change, which is a little unusual,” she said. “I love the tradition, but I love new ways of doing things as well.”
Shemtov said she feels an affinity for this part of the world and is happy to finally get the chance to live in Vermont. She is especially excited for winter.
“I’m not going to tell you I want it to be zero degrees every day, but I do appreciate cold weather,” she said.
As she transitions to the rural setting, Shemtov said one of her goals is to help the Rutland Jewish community connect with other groups in the area.
“We’re not an isolated community. There’s this whole community around us,” Shemtov said. “We need to step outside our building and connect with others.”
She also hopes to continue raising awareness about addiction in the Jewish community, a topic she has focused on in the past. She attributes her interest in this work to her late ex-husband, who died of complications relating to alcoholism in 2010.
“I keep hearing that Rutland has a problem (with addiction) — every town in America has a problem. I don’t know, I haven’t really identified if there’s a particularly unusual problem here, but people talk about it a lot,” she said. “I am very interested in showing people how ... a lot of what Judaism has to offer are really wonderful tools for people in recovery.”
As she prepares to dive into her various passion projects, she is also readying the RJC for a very busy season in the Jewish calendar: the fall High Holidays. This will coincide with the start of a new year at the Hebrew School, which Shemtov is responsible for running.
As she hits the ground running, she said her goals in Rutland mirror her wider goals as a spiritual leader. Her mission is to “make music every day, be grateful to God for all that God has done for us, be joyous, be kind and make a difference in the world.”
“That’s really the essence of what I’ve always wanted to bring as clergy,” she said.
Efforts by the Rutland County State's Attorney's Office to stop domestic violence got an upgrade recently through a federal grant that supports a full-time domestic violence prosecutor and investigator.
Deputy State's Attorney Daron Raleigh and Detective Sean Maguire, of the Rutland City Police Department, have taken on those respective roles.
Rose Kennedy, the Rutland County State's Attorney, said the dedicated roles are important because domestic violence is “such a unique crime.”
“I think for most people, if someone hits them, it's easy to walk away or to call the police and react. When it's a loved one that's hitting you, I think that people experience shame. Maybe they think that they've done something that's caused the behavior. I hear from victims all the time that they didn't report it because they kept believing the abuser would change. Maybe they have a pretty nice life from the outside and they don't want people to know what's really going on because it's embarrassing. There's tons of emotions that exist with this crime that I don't think exist with other crimes so I think trying to understand folks who have been victims of domestic violence is a full-time job,” she said.
The dedicated positions aren't new. When Kennedy took office four years ago, she applied to the Department of Justice program for funding through the Violence Against Women Act.
But while her office received grants, they were for a part-time prosecutor, positions filled by deputy attorneys Ian Sullivan followed by Travis Weaver, and a part-time investigator.
When Kennedy reapplied, she was given grants to make the positions full-time. She said on Thursday that she reached out to the county's police departments for an available investigator before Rutland City volunteered Maguire, who now dedicates 20 hours a week to domestic violence cases.
Taking the position as the domestic violence prosecutor, Raleigh brings her past experience working as a victim advocate in Windsor County.
“It was just a lifetime of experience and knowledge that I gained doing that job for three years, learning how to meet people where they're at, how to talk to people about things that are extremely private. … The major issue that I can identify as a prosecutor and when I was a victim advocate for victims of domestic violence is that they feel a tremendous amount of shame. Shame that they are with someone who would do this to them, shame that they put up with it for so long, shame that they don't always have the strength to stand up in a court of law and identify what happened to them and tell their story,” she said.
Raleigh credits a feminist legal theory course she took while getting her law degree at Villanova University for learning how to incorporate women's autonomy into prosecution.
She said she understood that victims, who she pointed out aren't always women but women are the most frequent victims, contact police when the violence and fear become overwhelming.
But over time, the victims realize the abuser may be someone they loved, someone who provides needed financial support or just someone whose life is intertwined with theirs.
“The idea that they're going to be responsible for that person facing punishment, and whether that's incarceration or probation or anything in between, that's a very hard and heavy weight for people to deal with,” Raleigh said.
Raleigh said her office was well-supported by local law-enforcement agencies, Rutland County victims rights advocates Naomi Ross and Shea McGee and the presence of the NewStory Center.
But she acknowledged what she's doing is challenging work.
Raleigh said a prosecutor working on a domestic violence case soon learns that there's no guarantee of how a victim may testify on any given day, even if the victim had been cooperative in the past.
“What I experience now as the prosecutor for these cases is a lot of the weight and hardship, but it comes in the form of, 'How do I navigate the confines of the law, seek justice for this person and for the community, because that's who I represent, and also how do I give this individual, who is ultimately the person most affected by this crime, the ability to call the shots in their own life?' So how do I deal with it? … Somebody has to do this work, so if it's not me, it's someone else, and why not me,” she said.
Raleigh said she “somewhat anticipates that the burnout will be fast.”
“But while I'm doing this job, I'm committed to doing this job the best that I can,” she said.
Through the winding hallways of Rutland High School, one could see throngs of people struggling to peer into a packed room where members of the NAACP, Vermont legislators, attorney generals, social justice center leaders and law enforcement met with residents and local officials to talk about “Hate-Free Vermont,” the third forum of its kind hosted by Attorney General T.J. Donovan.
Representatives Thomas Burditt and Cheryl Mazzarello-Hooker joined Donovan, State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy, members of the Rutland City Public School Commission, members of the Board of Aldermen and Mayor David Allaire, who sat in a massive circle, which had to be expanded as more than 70 people filled the small room. People shared stories of experiences with prejudice, bias and violence they were subjected to and heard information about how police were consistently working to stop it.
Twenty minutes after the meeting began, residents continued to flow in and fill the room.
Residents in turn told their stories of discrimination while in the local hospital as a transgender patient, as a person with mental illness in an ordinary situation, as someone from another culture who spoke and acted a different way, each story told of hardships caused by people in Vermont against people in some way who are different than them.
And for every voice that cracked with nerves, there suddenly appeared at their side a woman ready to place a hand on shoulders and backs as a show of solidarity and comfort to summon the courage needed to speak: Beatrice Parwatikar, one of NAACP’s advocates, held her head high from her seat until she knew someone needed her.
“The concept of standing with someone is something we have established in the communities of women of color,” Parwatikar said. “It means that we stand together, and we stand with strength. … We are standing on the shoulders of the other people who came before us. … This is the reason I am standing.”
Isaura Izquierdo told of how she learned a local restaurant establishment was distributing white supremacist literature, and which continues to discriminate against people of color based on spiritual beliefs, and how her son had been eventually pressured out of high school because of racially discriminatory practices by the local students and faculty alike.
She and her family were subsequently moving back to Florida before the summer ended after four years in Vermont — where she had come to keep her family safe and bring them up — because of the racism she and her loved ones endured in the community.
President of the NAACP Tabitha Moore expressed how false narratives can be spread like waves.
“If we don’t speak, they don’t think it’s a problem,” Moore said.
Throughout the presentation, audience members applauded one another for standing and speaking their truths to their officials and lawmakers, who joined in applause and nodded in respect.
Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, spoke about the necessity for Rutland and communities like it to embrace the notion of diversity and change before it leaves them behind socially and economically as well.
“If you want to attract business here, you have to attract it from black and brown consumers,” Reed said. “If your town doesn’t want to (welcome) black and brown people, or if your reputation is one that is culturally intolerant, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot economically.”
Residents asked law enforcement whether they are pressured by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and Attorney General T.J. Donovan assured the audience that the rule in Vermont is: “Don’t Ask.”
“The policy for every department is ‘Don’t Ask,’” Donovan said. “Because (when) I get stopped, nobody is asking where I’m from.”
“We’re getting heat from border control because we’ve only called them twice in the last three years,” said Capt. Gary Scott, the Vermont State Police.
In a show of solidarity, State Police have recorded traffic stop data since the late 2000s, Scott said, and in 2015, the VSP intensified their efforts to reevaluate records and keep stricter accounts of their stops, Scott said, and publish all of their annual data to their website.
“Black operators in 2018, we stopped approximately 1,500,” Scott began. “They are ticketed at 40%. Whites are ticketed at 36%, Asians are ticketed at about 50%, Hispanics are ticketed at 42% and Native Americans at about 42%.”
Scott said the “find” rate, or rate at which police find something in the vehicle that the suspect is not supposed to have, remained approximately 81% across the board.
“But we’re still concerned about the search rates,” Scott said. “The search rates for white operators are about 0.6%, but the search rates for black operators are at about 1.6%, and then Hispanics are about 1.9%.”
Scott explained that the 20-30 new troopers every year are doing the majority of the traffic stop work, and the VSP is actively working to consistently train their troopers, but they could not precisely identify why the search rates were lower in the white demographic despite the consistent find rates with every race documented.
“Consumers, they’re not going to come here,” Reed said. “They’re not going to go to Killington. They’re going to go to Mount Snow because they know it’s a lot more of a welcoming community than Rutland is. … Entrepreneurs of color are going to look to places like Brattleboro or Burlington or Winooski because people there understand that ‘this is where the dollars are.’”
“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
U.S. Attorney General William Barr commenting on the end of a two-decade moratorium on execution of federal death-row inmates even as the nation sees a broad shift away from capital punishment. — B4
Activists in the streets of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, rejoiced and launched fireworks to celebrate the announcement that embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló will resign Aug. 2. A6
North Korea launched two ballistic missiles into the sea Thursday in what is described as a test of a new type of short-range rocket. A6
Violins & voices
Villalobos Brothers, redefining contemporary Mexican music. $25, 7 p.m. Feast and Field, 1544 Royalton Turnpike, Barnard, barnarts.org.