BRATTLEBORO—As the town copes with the consequences of opioids, one segment of the population finds itself especially affected: youth.
A recent series of interviews with younger people who have managed to climb out of hardships suggest an undercurrent of street violence and the consequences of addiction within their community.
Sources, many of whom spoke on background for reasons of privacy and concern for their safety, say that this activity is rarely reported to the police and only occasionally reaches public notice.
The young people talked about the impact that drugs have had on their lives in terms of addiction and overdoses among their friends and acquaintances.
They also talked about the ways in which those who get hooked on drugs wind up enmeshed in a drug-dealing system where violence is a main method of enforcing debts, and where petty crime or dealing are the main ways of paying them.
The story is hidden from view in some ways, but in other ways it is an open secret.
Home invasion at gunpoint
Shyanne Pratt, 19, is lucky to be alive after a brutal pistol-whipping by two men in ski masks in her Clark Street apartment on Jan. 29.
The incident is still an open case for the Brattleboro Police Department.
“I was just sitting in my house,” said Pratt, who said she was waiting for her sister to return before leaving herself to give her boyfriend a ride. When she suddenly heard people running up the stairs, she thought it might be her boyfriend returning early.
“It’s like a wicked secure apartment building, and you can’t get in unless you have the key,” Pratt said. “The doors are always locked.”
The assailants kicked in the bedroom door. They “had black gloves and ski masks on, so I couldn’t really tell anything,” Pratt said, clearly and calmly recalling the event.
“And then right after they kicked it in, they had guns in my face, and then they said, ‘Get on the ground,’ but I couldn’t do that because I was on the bed.”
From there, “they just pretty much started striking me in the head, and after the first or second strike I just kind of lost everything really and cannot remember anything,” she said.
She was taken to the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital emergency department and then transferred to an out-of-state hospital, where she recuperated for several weeks.
She did manage to avoid brain surgery. Her jaw, still broken, was wired shut, and “pretty much the whole right side of my head was fractured or broken, so I was in critical condition,” she said.
Pratt described the ordeal as “definitely one of the scariest things in my life.”
“I just don’t understand how someone could just leave a 90-pound girl all bloody like that,” she said.
“They could have just hit my on the head once and taken my money with one punch, but they did it like to the point where I was almost dead,” she said.
“I never thought that in Brattleboro something like that would happen to me,” Pratt said. “I’ve lived here and grown up here all my life, and I never thought anything like this could happen.”
Pratt’s facial wounds, which had been so visible in a photograph posted on a Brattleboro Facebook group, have largely healed. Her jaw was still broken and mending, and her face was still puffy.
The attack is “something that’s going to stay with me for a long time” she said. “Probably for my whole life. But I’m glad I made it.”
Shyanne Pratt’s case is unusual in its depth of violence and harm, and the circumstances and motives for the attack remain unclear. The case is still under investigation by the Brattleboro Police Department. “There does not appear to be an elevated risk of danger for the general public,” the police wrote in a Jan. 30 press release.
Several young people interviewed for this story either knew Pratt or were aware of what had happened to her. For them, her beating seemed less like an isolated incident than simply an extreme example of the kinds of violence that youth sometimes encounter.
Easy to get trapped, difficult to seek help
Many youth sometimes find themselves in situations from which they are not sure how to escape, especially when they become enmeshed in the world of drugs and dealers. They hesitate to ask for help because they are afraid of a range of consequences.
One teen, “Margaret,” who has lived in Brattleboro for five years, talked about the friends who got caught up in the drug culture and now feel trapped.
“Like, if you’re out there doing heroin or whatever you’re doing and you’re scared of being prosecuted for it, you’re not telling anybody what’s happening to you,” she said. “You’re not talking about the domestic violence, you’re not talking about the sexual violence. You’re not — you’re scared.”
“You know if you’re associated with that [the drug culture], you think that you get a bad rap, [and] you don’t get to talk about what happened to you,” Margaret said — for youth caught up in drugs, they lose control of their own story.
Another young woman, “Beth,” grew up here and was a schoolmate of Pratt’s. For her, things have gotten worse in Brattleboro.
“It wasn’t that bad when I was a kid and the drug scene has gotten a lot worse,” she said. “Everyone I know is affected by drugs now, everybody I used to hang out with are messed up on drugs.”
Beth is pregnant and afraid of raising her future child here as a young parent.
Both Beth and Margaret talked about how some girls become vulnerable, getting involved with partners who are older, who deal drugs, and how the young women often become users of what is being sold.
Margaret talked about a young woman of 17 whom she knows, the daughter of a family friend.
“She is this really sweet girl,” Margaret said, “but I’ve seen her cry, break out tears in front of people like her family and myself. And because she doesn’t know what to do, because she knows she’s using and she knows she’s going to go [to procure drugs] as soon as she leaves the house.”
“She’s going to go find her boyfriend, who’s 10 years older, and she’s going to go get a bag [of heroin], and she’s going to go do it,” Margaret said. “She doesn’t care that this guy beats the fuck out of her because she’s doing drugs and she wants to do drugs and she doesn’t think she can say anything about what he’s doing because she’s doing drugs.”
This young woman “can’t talk about the bruises on her face,” Margaret said. “She can’t talk about how sad or how worn out she looks. Or she doesn’t think she can go to the doctor because she [already has a] history [of drug use], she doesn’t think she can do anything about it because of that.”
Even if young people like this 17-year-old decide to seek help, they don’t know where to go or how to start the process, Margaret said.
“You don’t know who’s going to yell at you, who’s going to give you the good advice. You don’t know who to listen to. And it’s so sad to see that, because people get broken down, especially for me to see this girl go from, like, a cheerleader and, like, [being] super popular and smart to what’s happening now.”
Good opportunities depend on connections
Another young person, “Pat,” described the ways in which social circumstances and circles of friends can lead into uncharted territory and get someone in trouble.
“I feel like it starts with all the kids like you hang out with, and then you keep hanging out with more people through them,” said Pat, describing a friend who wound up enmeshed in Brattleboro’s drug trade.
The friend started selling “because his shit went south at home,” Pat said. The friend couldn’t pay his bills, so he ended up with people from Springfield, Mass. paying him to live in his house and sell crack.
“And of course, he’s doing crap, he smoked crack, so he’s not going to get another job,” Pat said. “He makes these people angry, so he let them use the house as a whole.”
That friend is now incarcerated.
Pat talked about a sense of a lack of opportunity and how difficult it might be for young people to find work that pays enough to live on.
“It’s hard to find a job,” Pat said, explaining that good opportunities often depend on connections that some young people in town don’t have.
“But when you don’t have support, or you don’t have parents that are going to help you, you know, you might not have a chance,” Pat added. “I know my parents don’t have any money, and they can’t help me with anything.”
Real people, real horror stories
The theme of violence is constant in the lives of these young people.
“Anna” talked about her own experiences getting caught up in drug dealing and in a relationship with someone older when she was in her early years of high school.
Clean now, she emphasized the ways in which bad things can happen to young people and how thin their support systems can sometimes seem.
People who fall into the drug community may be victimized by dealers and their brand of vigilante justice.
“I have known a few people in town who have been brutally beaten for things that they did in their personal lives,” Anna said.
But she is also concerned about the harmful ways in which judgment is sometimes leveled by the community toward individuals who are struggling. For Anna, it’s “just not how it should be done.”
“They aren’t you, and they want the right to decide what they do,” she said.
For Brattleboro to “come out of this rut that it’s been dramatically falling into for so long,” Anna urged people to build community “around more positive things.”
In other words, “if you see something wrong, fucking fix it, but in a way that is beneficial to the community instead of detrimental,” she said.
“Abuse and forced drug use and just general detrimental things from other people happen every day,” Anna said. “I see it all the time, and I think the town as a whole needs to pay more attention to what’s going on in the moment.”
She talked about the need for the Brattleboro community to see these challenges as chronic elements within the community, not just an occasional “horror story” that makes the front pages.
“You can hear about horrible things forever, and you can feel bad about it, but it’s real for some people,” she said. For a lot of people, “they don’t know how to grasp that.”
“I can scream it in the middle of Main Street, and it’s not going to really stick,” Anna said. “I don’t know how to tell people that it’s not just a story. It happens to people every day. And it’s real. The violence and the pain and the drugs.”
“Unless you do anything, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “It just doesn’t.”
How some youth become so vulnerable to exploitation and sometimes violence is a serious question.
Anna attributes an unstable home life as the answer for why she got involved with selling drugs — mainly LSD — when she was younger.
She said that she had gone through numerous transitions between living with family and in between homes, and began to deal at a young age out of a sense of self-preservation and the need to make her own money.
“There are others like me who don’t have a savings, are becoming unstable, and think, ‘Oh, shit, I need to do something,’” Anna said. “Like, basically, ‘I need to take care of myself.’”
Youth say the lack of support systems — weak family structures, or peers who are also headed down a certain path — often leaves few options and can propel them into trouble. And with friends and family, these relationships can be as longstanding and comfortable as they are dangerous and dysfunctional.
Many of the youth who struggle in the region lack the stable resources and safety net of an intact family structure and the kind of financial means that are taken for granted at some socioeconomic levels.
Margaret shared how things sometimes broke down for her and for other youth, especially if they “grow up with people who don’t really have your best interests,” she said.
Whether it’s manipulative parents or “other people in their lives who will say, ‘I’ll do this for you, but you got to do this for me,’” Margaret feels like it’s “so hard for a person to be able to get rid of those negative influences.”
“Sometimes your family isn’t your family,” she said. “It’s hard to get out of that.”
“You can’t always just say, ‘Fuck them, I’m gonna do it by myself,’” Margaret said. “You can’t, because you need people — you do need people. “
Making everything ‘a little bit less terrifying’
Having emerged from the lifestyle of youthful drug dealing, Anna now wants to help other young people who might find themselves in the same circumstances.
If she sees another girl her age or younger walking down the street, “I’ll ask them how they are doing,” she said. Maybe she’ll offer to walk her to her car.
“Really simple things like that makes everything a little bit less terrifying,” she said.
Also important: “paying attention to what kids are saying about what’s going on at school or asking if they know about anybody who is having a hard time.”
“If you see someone being hurt, then someone else needs to know,” said Anna, who remains aware of what’s really happening in Brattleboro — and where the harm lies.
“I know all the drug dealers in town,” she said, “and most of them have families and are not the problem. The ones that go after you are the problem.”
‘I want to make sure the people I see every day are safe’
Gershom Moore expresses the empathy and desire to protect young people in a way that speaks to his own experiences.
He has lived in Brattleboro for 17 years and has more than once spoken to the Selectboard about his concerns regarding violence within the community.
“I know it’s really hard for municipalities to be out there with everything that happens,” Moore said, talking about how aware he is of what happens on Brattleboro’s streets. “You have these people who get caught up in situations that they would never do at all, like being forced to fight.”
“I know Shyanne,” he said, “and that’s why I brought some stuff up at the Selectboard meeting. Are we supposed to wait when we see someone get it handed to them? I saw some guy get the shit kicked out of him at the parking garage.”
“Now we got shit that’s going on, like pulling people into dark places,” Moore said. “I might have to be one of those people in dark places.”
“I want to make sure the people I see every day are safe — it’s emotional for me,” he said, touching his eyes. “In my home, I don’t preach violence, I don’t teach my kids how to fight until they’re ready.”
But Moore might be.
“If you come into my backyard and hurt people I love, I’m going to do something about it, because the police can’t get there fast enough, and I’m tired of it, and I’m right there.”
Support and mentoring for life skills
Those who are familiar with these problems in town agree on two things: first, providing free resources to vulnerable youth is essential, and second, those resources are scarce.
Most sources say that no one agency or service can address the problem and that only community-wide efforts can effectively address the town’s challenges.
Brattleboro provides a robust array of support structures and resources, and youth have many opportunities to find alternatives to the chasm into which some young people fall.
At the same time, resources are stretched thin, and the depth of the problem might not receive the attention that it merits.
Some youth pointed out that those their age who are on their own might lack life skills around seeking employment and housing. Family support that many families take for granted may remain missing in their lives, they added.
A consistent theme was the need for supportive individuals who can offer guidance, insights on how to approach life, and advice for how to function effectively within the community.
They also talked about how important it is to make the opportunities that are available visible to youth, such as having a Facebook page dedicated to jobs and opportunities available to younger people.
Sources also acknowledged that for some young individuals, the path to overcoming their struggles can be rocky at best, that progress may be intermittent, and that a lot just comes down to the individual.
The young people who spoke to The Commons had managed to escape hard circumstances and build a sort of bridge to recovery, and they emphasized how much comes down to the individual — that supports can only go so far.
“You can’t provide everybody with all the tools because that person can still make the choice to not use them,” Margaret said.
As the visible signs of the opioid crisis increasingly show themselves around town, many have publicly questioned and debated the town’s responsibility as a compassionate community.
One local observer who has worked in services for youth for two decades in both Vermont and other New England states, said that as a community, Brattleboro must “expand our definition of who is vulnerable, and not assume that young people have strengths that they really do not.”
“These are also a part of vulnerable population, and they are often without the supports they need,” she said, noting that social-service agencies can’t do it alone. “Where’s the rest of us?” she asked.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “But where’s our village?”