Planning proceeds on new treatment center in Vergennes

VERGENNES — Although permitting and organization is going well, the clinical head of a proposed program to help troubled young women at 1 Alden Place in Vergennes said it is not expected to open there for several months.
Craig Smith, the clinical director of Valley Vista’s nine-year-old, 80-bed substance-abuse treatment center in Bradford, said all involved in the new venture remain excited about what the 19-room former Vergennes nursing home can offer adolescent girls and young women who are battling drug addiction, “self-injury behaviors” (typically cutting) or both.
Too little treatment is available for an increasingly prevalent problem, said Smith, who will at its start oversee the Vergennes program. Smith and other Valley Vista experts designed that program in tandem with Dr. Patrick L. DeChello, an internationally recognized expert in understanding and treating individuals with self-injury behaviors.
“Everyone is enthusiastic about having this option available for this niche,” Smith said. “There is very little time and resource available to address it.”
Although Vergennes officials ruled Valley Vista did not need a local permit to operate, Smith said before Valley Vista can open much remains to be done despite that green light and the generally favorable reception the proposal received in the community.
“Things are moving along and we’re certainly optimistic,” Smith said. “We would love … to be up and running by (the summer), and the outside date would be the fall.”
Among the hoops to jump through for Valley Vista is obtaining approval from the new Green Mountain Care Board, which Smith said as of Jan. 1 has regulatory authority over Valley Vista’s and similar programs.
Valley Vista co-owner Rick DiStefano and other company officials recently met with that board, and Smith said Valley Vista expects to have its formal application complete by April 1.
Valley Vista also needs Department of Children and Families approval for the facility and for what Smith called “staffing patterns” as well as staff certifications.
A DCF official already called the building “licensable,” and a Department of Labor and Industry fire safety inspection was scheduled for last week, Smith said.
He would be surprised if the building has any problem — he said it is well built as well as well suited for the program. 
“We tingle at that place, it’s just majestic,” Smith said. “Structurally and from a clinical program standpoint it’s just ideal for our needs.”
Smith is also confident in the clinical program, noting that even the master’s degree-level therapists Valley Vista will hire will receive specialized training before the facility opens (also another reason it will be a while before it is operating).
“It just requires significant training,” he said. “We want at least a month … before we admit our first patient.”
Valley Vista went public in November with its plans to purchase the former Briarwood Manor nursing home. The nursing home also did business as the Alden Place Residential Care Home LLC. It was operating under that name when the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living revoked its license in June 2010 for 23 alleged violations.
The 9,146-square-foot building, which sits on 3.9 acres, has sat vacant since then. It was listed for sale by Redstone at $1.2 million.
Operating as the Helping Others Pursue Empowerment (HOPE) program, Valley Vista in Vergennes would employ more than 20 mental health professionals to help girls and women (ages 13 to 22) move away from drug addiction, self-injury or both.
In an earlier interview with the Independent, DiStefano cited a 2005 National Mental Health Association study indicating that one out of 200 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 regularly practices “self-injurious behaviors.”  
DiStefano said Vergennes patients would not be locked in, but would be told they needed to remain on the campus and would be escorted when they leave the building. DiStefano said patients very rarely sneak out of Valley Vista facilities; if they do, local and state police are contacted.
Back in 2005, the Counseling Service of Addison County and Burlington’s Howard Center for Community Services had proposed purchasing 1 Alden Place as a mental health facility for up to 10 psychiatric patients. The agencies backed off the plan in the face of strong community opposition.
This time around, backing for Valley Vista’s proposal, although not unanimous, was evident, possibly because of the county’s increase in drug addiction and drug-related crime.
Smith acknowledged that not all agreed with the plan, but said Valley Vista officials appreciated the overall support, as well as the many people who attended a December open house at 1 Alden Place to learn more about the program. 
“We were humbled by it, truly,” Smith said. “We were gratified.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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