Key legislative panels Thursday advanced a plan by Vermont officials to replace the state-run juvenile detention center in Essex with a privately run facility in the Wells River section of Newbury.
On Thursday, the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee and the Joint Child Protection Oversight Committee unanimously recommended that the Legislature approve the Scott administration’s plan to allow Becket Family Services, a New Hampshire-base company, to operate a six-bed juvenile treatment center.
Their recommendation goes to the Joint Fiscal Committee, which still needs to OK the plan.
It is still undecided whether the new facility will be staffed by state employees or workers hired by Becket. A proposal to require state workers be hired was not approved Thursday.
Last month, lawmakers already signed off on the Scott administration’s proposal to close the state’s former juvenile detention center, the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center.
The administration announced its intent to close Woodside and find an alternative for the facility a year ago, in part because of the dwindling number of troubled youth receiving services in the building with a 30-bed capacity.
Vermont’s Agency of Human Services and the Department for Children and Families have recommended renovating a Becket-owned property in Wells River into the six-bed treatment center.
The state would lease the building and the property from Becket, and the Department for Children and Families would negotiate another contract with the company to operate the center.
Woodside cost the state about $6 million a year to operate. DCF estimates it will cost $3.1 million to renovate the Becket facility, and $3.8 million a year for Becket to run it.
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During the joint committee meeting on Thursday, lawmakers approved the plan, but first debated whether the Becket-run facility should be staffed by state employees.
The Vermont State Employees’ Association, the state employees union, has been pushing lawmakers to adopt a “hybrid” structure for the new juvenile facility: one in which the program is owned and operated by Becket but staffed by state employees.
Steve Howard, the executive director of the union, argued that the program would lack proper oversight if not staffed by state workers.
“It shouldn’t be a one-way street where they get all the money, but none of the accountability,” Howard said of Becket.
“And that’s what state employees really offer the Legislature. They offer the families, they offer these kids, they offer the taxpayers of the state of Vermont,” Howard said.
Some legislators agreed with Howard.
“I am concerned about ongoing programmatic oversight, and I do think that the best way to accomplish system improvements over time is by retaining state employees within the building,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden.
Hiring state workers to staff the program would cost about $1.5 million more annually.
Sean Brown, the commissioner of DCF, said that the department opposed the union’s proposal.
“Not only were there structural issues with the Woodside facility but there were significant programmatic issues when it was run by state employees,” Brown said, referring to a federal lawsuit brought against the state in 2019, alleging excessive use of physical restraints at Woodside.
“And we believe that our proposal to work with an experienced provider like Becket to provide this program will provide a better service to the youth,” he added.
The majority of legislators voted against a motion to approve the proposal on the condition that the Becket-run facility is staffed by state employees. Some questioned what it would look like to have state workers in a privately owned and operated program.
“I’m rather lost as to how that would work. Who would be management? Would we have a private sector person supervising a state employee? That doesn’t sound right to me,” said Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier.
“There’s just a whole host of issues there that I don’t think we’ve gone down the road to really understanding,” she added.
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Lawmakers voted 8-5 against formally recommending the “hybrid” model.
But when they voted to recommend the administration’s proposal, they instructed the Joint Fiscal Committee to explore the possibility of hiring state employees to staff the program.
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