The Vermont Department for Children and Families is seeking new homes for six children with developmental disabilities because the school where they reside in Massachusetts will be closed following allegations of abuse.
The six children, all in Vermont state custody, have been living at the Eagleton School in Great Barrington. The facility is for boys with autism, Asperger's syndrome, and other cognitive, behavioral and developmental disabilities.
Fifty local, state and federal law enforcement agents raided the school in late January after reports of abuse by staff. Five employees were arrested in connection with the allegations.
One woman reported that her stepson's sternum had been broken when staff forced him into a restraint. She said he did not receive medical treatment for two weeks after incident.
The school, which has a capacity of 76 students, has continued to operate since the raid and the arrests. However, in mid-March, Massachusetts officials moved to shut down the facility, citing "aggressive and abusive" treatment of students, according to the Eagle.
The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care filed a notice to revoke the school's residential care license. In documents, the department reported that since the school was placed under sanctions following the raid, there have been issues of noncompliance, and new reports of abuse.
"Eagleton staff continue to place residents at risk by utilizing physical force and unwarranted restraint techniques to control emotionally and mentally disabled individuals," the documents state.
Earlier this week, Vermont child protection officials were notified of the school closing, according to DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz. The department hopes to find new placements for the six Vermont children by early April, he said.
"In light of the state of investigation by the Massachusetts agencies involved, we think it is the appropriate thing to do to immediately move these children and not wait to find out whether Eagleton School is going to appeal," Schatz said.
A Vermont DCF employee visited the facility after the allegations came to light, Schatz said. That individual "was comfortable that the children in Vermont custody were safe," he said.
"We have no reason to believe any of the Vermont youth have been subject to any mistreatment by Eagleton staff," Schatz said.
DCF social workers are now working to find new placements for the children who have been at Eagleton. Those individuals were previously sent to Eagleton "because it was determined that these particular youth needed the kind of care that would be provided in a residential program," Schatz said.
"But this is an opportunity for us to revisit that determination and see if we can find an appropriate place closer to home," he said.
Schatz acknowledged that the sudden movement of the children could be traumatic.
"It's basically going to be an unexpected move which we really have not had an opportunity to really plan for," Schatz said. "But in terms of safety we think it's the right thing to do."
Depending on their individual situations, the boys may go to other residential facilities, or they may go to foster homes if there are suitable community-based services, according to Schatz. DCF is working with the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, he said.
The commissioner could not provide information this week regarding the number of developmentally disabled children in state custody. There also was no information available on the number of children in residential programs out of state, he said.
Barbara Prine, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, said that children with developmental disabilities go to out of state residential facilities because there are not adequate services in Vermont.
Parents of children with disabilities may require extensive support and services in order to care for their children at home, Prine said. "Vermont doesn't do as a good a job at providing those community supports for kids as for adults," she said.
Prine said it is easier for abuse to go undetected in residential facilities. When children are sent out of state, different rules apply for the use of restraints.
"When you're in a community, then it's easier for the community to tell when something goes wrong," she said.
Prine sees a need for more crisis services, wrap-around services, and opportunities for respite to support families with children with developmental disabilities.
Schatz said DCF is "actively looking at those issues."
In Gov. Peter Shumlin's fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, DCF proposed restructuring residential treatment services for young Vermonters.
In a January memo to the House Appropriations Committee, the department said that an increase in community-based services would obviate the need for treatment in residential facilities.
DCF would like to increase scrutiny of the cases involving residential treatment to determine what is "the best way to meet their needs," Schatz said.