Safe Choices – introduction

This series looks at a privately operated but state funded program created to deal with people who have two strikes against them:  a court has judged them to be mentally retarded, and they have been accused of a sexual offense for which, because of their disability, they cannot constitutionally be brought to trial.  Our series, which began in October 2008, deals with “clients” who found the Safe Choices Program humiliating, confining, threatening and mentally abusive.  None of our subjects of articles within the numbered series quite fits the definition Safe Choices was created to serve.  They had never been formally charged with a serious sexual offense, but instead were suspected of sexual misbehavior and sent to Safe Choices by public or private guardians.
This series garnered a first place award for investigative reporting in the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s Annual Better Newspaper Contest in 2010.

The stories in the series appear here with numbered titles (starting with Safe Choices 1) in order of when they were written.


Coventry man sentenced for knife attack

Christopher Smith enters court as Jennifer Hersey Cleveland, the woman he attacked in August 2011, looks on. Photograph by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle, 9-14-2012

Editor’s note:  This article is more recent than the Chronicle’s Safe Choices series published in 2010. The entire series is posted in the Safe Choices Program category from part one through 30 starting with part one.

NEWPORT — A Coventry man was sentenced to three to five years in jail — with all but just over a year of that suspended — for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a felony, and engaging in a prohibited act.  He was given credit for time served.

Cristopher Smith, 27, of Coventry, was arrested on August 8, 2011, after he threatened Jennifer Hersey Cleveland, a reporter for the Orleans County Record and a former Chronicle editor, with a knife.  He also ordered her to undress.  Ms. Cleveland had seen Mr. Smith hitchhiking with his dog in Coventry and offered him a lift.

When Mr. Smith pulled his knife on her, Ms. Cleveland grabbed his arm and broke the weapon before running from the car and seeking help at a nearby house.  Mr. Smith has been held without bail since his arrest.

Just after the initial sentencing hearing, Lawyer Gertrude Miller found herself in an unusual situation — forced to ask Judge Howard VanBenthuysen to extend her client’s time in jail.

After a three-hour-long hearing, during which Ms. Cleveland asked him to serve justice in “a merciful, therapeutic manner,” Judge VanBenthuysen agreed to the sentence worked out between Ms. Miller and Deputy Orleans County State’s Attorney James Lillicrap.  The hearing was held in the Orleans Criminal Division of Vermont Superior Court.

It called for a three-to-five-year sentence for Mr. Smith, all but 353 days of which were to be suspended.  In addition, the sentence included several pages of conditions including provisions that called for him to participate in a mental health treatment program, refrain from hitchhiking and not drive with female passengers unless given permission to do so by his probation officer.

The snag, discovered by probation officer Lisa Levesque, was that Mr. Smith’s sentence would have forced the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to release him immediately, even though his place in a treatment program will not be ready for up to six weeks.

The state and Mr. Smith’s lawyer agreed that he needs to be in a treatment program for some time to come.

After the discovery of the sentencing mishap, Judge VanBenthuysen quickly reconvened the hearing and with the agreement of all parties reset the period Mr. Smith must remain in jail to 395 days.  He agreed that, should the treatment facility be able to accommodate Mr. Smith sooner, he would readjust the sentence to allow him to enter the program.

The sentencing hearing was ostensibly called to allow Ms. Miller to contest two provisions of the sentencing agreement — that calling for Mr. Smith to refrain from giving women rides in his car, and that calling for him to participate in the therapy program.

In fact, Ms. Miller never discussed the first provision, and spent much time trying to influence the type of therapeutic program Mr. Smith is ordered to attend.

Despite frequent objections from Mr. Lillicrap, Ms. Miller spent an hour questioning a California psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Hochman, in a an attempt to elicit damaging testimony about Safe Choices, the residential treatment program where Mr. Smith lived for seven years before the attack on Ms. Cleveland.

Mr. Lillicrap argued that the questions were irrelevant because the plea agreement specifically stated that Mr. Smith would not be returned to Safe Choices without a judge’s order.

Judge VanBenthuysen wryly noted that Ms. Miller is a leading expert on Safe Choices, and has been involved in civil suits against the organization.  The Chronicle spent several years investigating the program and published a lengthy series of articles on its controversial practices (the series is published in its entirety elsewhere on this site.)  Ms. Cleveland also reported on the program for the Orleans County Record.

Dr. Hochman did criticize the program on the stand and in an affidavit submitted in advance of the hearing.

The affidavit says he interviewed Mr. Smith for one and a half hours and read 5,000 page of documents about his treatment.  His work led him to the conclusion that Mr. Smith suffers from high functioning autism, marked by “poor control of anger and disability in navigating adult social relationships…”  It also says he believes Mr. Smith was initially mislabeled as a sexual offender “based solely on several isolated episodes of faulty peer socialization that bore superficial resemblance to behavior that would be viewed by most as perverse if it occurred between sexually mature adults.”

It says that as a result of this initial mislabeling, he was put into a mandatory psychological program that “confined him to minimal participation in society as well as having him attend regular group sessions which appeared to use humiliation as a primary tool of behavior control.”

“Based on my review and my clinical experience, it is remarkable that in the months prior to the crime that put him in prison the following sequence of events took place:  a) after years of being chaperoned and needing to have any movies he rented approved by NEKHS [North East Kingdom Human Services] staff for limited sexual content, Mr. Smith succeeded in hacking the channel/ billing apparatus of a host family’s satellite TV system, and had free reign to watch “XXX channels” for five months until the host family discovered their monthly credit card bill had automatically been raised to pay for the XXX channels.  C) Several days after being banished from his new world of pornography/ fantasy, Mr. Smith committed the first actual sexual offense in his lifetime.  It is my observation that this was done in a hapless manner, noting an immediate subsequent suicide attempt was done in an equally hapless fashion.  It is mu further opinion that is is medically probable that there is a link between the phenomenon of pornography withdrawal and the commission of his crime, further noting that for years he was indoctrinated to view himself as a sexual deviant who was unable to fully function in society.”

He recommended that Mr. Smith be given therapy that would help him become part of a community and develop skills and interests that would enable him to participate in the outside world.

Gail Falk, the only other witness called by Ms. Miller, said she became Mr. Smith’s guardian seven years ago.  As head of Vermont’s Office of the Public Guardian, Ms. Falk met him when she went to Philadelphia to bring him back to Vermont after he grew too old for the school where he had been housed.

“I was overwhelmed by what a scary place that school was,” Ms. Falk recalled.  “I was glad to hear that it was later closed down by the state of Pennsylvania.”

Ms. Falk said the two of them bonded and she has remained Mr. Smith’s guardian although she no longer works for the state.  She said that she searched for a program that would enable Mr. Smith to nurture his abilities and help him to make friends and deal well with others.

She said that Mr. Smith has been in sex offender group therapy since he was 14.

“If it was going to be effective, it would have been,” Ms. Falk said.

Ms. Falk recommended that Mr. Smith be sent to Specialized Community Care, a small program that is willing to make space for him.

Judge VanBenthuysen said he appreciated the effort that Ms. Falk made to find the program, but pointed out that his ability to direct the DOC is limited that that agency would make the final decision about where Mr. Smith is sent for treatment.

Mr. Smith’s sentencing hearing began with a statement from Ms. Cleveland who read prepared remarks, stopping to hold back tears several times (see below).

Ms. Cleveland spoke directly to Mr. Smith, who did not look at her.  She told him that though she forgives him she wants him to know that his actions have had a major impact on her life.

Since the attack, Ms. Cleveland said, she has lost her sense of trust and said, “I can’t force myself to stop and help others in need — because of what you did.”

Although she is willing to recommend a sentence other than jail now, Ms. Cleveland told Mr. Smith that if he is again charged with a similar offense “expect to see my face in the courtroom, but in the future, I won’t be asking the court to be merciful.”

At the conclusion of the hearing Judge VanBenthuysen asked Mr. Smith if he cared to speak.  Mr. Smith rose and, without turning to face her, apologized to Ms. Cleveland.

“I know what I did was wrong,” he said.  “I’m really sorry for what I did.  I could never hurt anyone again.”

Mr. Smith asked the court for another chance.  He concluded by reading a poem he called “Puppet String.”

In it Mr. Smith described himself as a puppet and envisioned a day when he would break free of the strings that control him.

“One day I will pull loose my strings that holds my weight and stand on my own two feet/ and celebrate/and go where the world awaits.”

After Mr. Smith finished his statement Judge VanBenthuysen spoke first to Ms. Cleveland, praising the courage she showed in resisting her attacker and the compassion she showed in calling for mercy for him.

The judge said he sensed sincerity in Mr. Smith’s apology.  He told him that he wrestled with the question of whether or not to accept the proposed sentence agreement, but had been swayed by the fact that it was Mr. Smith’s first criminal offense and by Ms. Cleveland’s statement.

“This is a rehabilitative sentence,” Judge VanBenthuysen said.  He pointed out that the therapy recommended by Ms. Falk and Dr. Hochman is similar to that practiced by Safe Choices in that it is “intensively supervised.”

Should the court err in sentencing “any error in this case has to be in the safety of others,” Judge VanBenthuysen said.

Jennifer Cleveland’s statement:

 I want justice to be served, but in a merciful, therapeutic manner for Mr. Smith, which I believe the sentence in plea agreement accomplishes.

I forgive Cris, but I want you to know the impact of your actions in my life, because that’s something I can never forget.

It took me years to feel strong and self-sufficient, to get to the point where I’m not afraid to live my life — because by the plain fact of my birth as a female I’m a potential victim of sexual violence.

My husband now wants me to carry a weapon at all times and is worried every time I leave the house, worried I’ll again meet up with someone like you.

You destroyed my sense of trust.  I stopped that day to help you, and in return you put a knife in my face.  Now, I can’t force myself to stop and help others in need — because of what you did.

My job requires going into secluded, rural places at times to speak with people.  On one occasion, a man’s mother had just been crushed when her home caved in on her.  The man was in tears and reached out to me for some human comfort, and I couldn’t even give him a hug.  Because of what you did, I thought the man was trying to trick me to get close enough to hurt me.

Despite all of this, I’m giving my approval to what is a merciful sentence.  I don’t think jail is the place for you, but I certainly want you to get the help you need.

I hope you take this all very seriously and realize that not every woman would ask the court to treat you so kindly.  I hope you find a reputable program that actually seeks to treat people who have problems similar to your own.  It sickens me that you were placed in a program that encouraged you to behave this way and made you feel like you have no worth.  But it is time to move on and put in the time and effort necessary for you to get better.

If you are ever again charged with an offense like this, expect to see my face in the courtroom, but in the future I won’t be asking the court to be merciful.

contact Joseph Gresser at

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Safe Choices 1 – Leave George alone

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle October 1, 2008
NEWPORT — In his effort to take control of his life away from the state of Vermont, George St. Francis found an ally in Probate Judge John Monette.

After a hearing on September 4 the judge ordered the Office of the Public Guardian and much of the staff of the Safe Choices program to “refrain from any and all acts constituting abuse, retaliation, intimidation, humiliation, ridicule, exploitation, threat, or harassment” of Mr. St. Francis, who is under state guardianship.
For good measure, the judge told the state and Safe Choices to give Mr. St. Francis access to his own attorney, and not to change his medications in a way that might hinder his ability to function.
Mr. St. Francis, 30, has been living at “Lowell House,” an isolated residence that houses a few participants in the Safe Choices program, which in turn is run by Northeast Kingdom Human Services, Inc., of Newport.
Safe Choices was founded about 15 years ago as a way to deal with sex offenders who, because of low intelligence, are incompetent to stand trial in criminal court.  The program has grown to include men like Mr. St. Francis, men who had not been charged with a sex crime, but were deemed to be at risk of offending.
Mr. St. Francis has been in criminal court as recently as Tuesday on misdemeanor charges brought by the people who mind him at Lowell House.  And while it’s not clear that his competency to stand trial has ever been resolved as a legal matter, he has been convicted of one count of engaging in a “prohibited act,” and a probation violation for essentially repeating that act.
Mr. St. Francis wants to get out of Lowell House and out of the Safe Choices program.  To that end, he has apparently filed a request in Orleans Family Court that his state guardianship be terminated.
That relationship dates back to 1996, when he was 18 and Chittenden Family Court found that he had “been diagnosed as having significantly subaverage intellectual function… which exists concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior.”
Meanwhile, Mr. St. Francis has filed a parallel request in probate court that Janet Reed of Craftsbury be named his private guardian.  Ms. Reed has worked actively to help other men get out of the Safe Choices program.
While state guardianships are handled in Family Court, private guardians are appointed and monitored by Probate Court, and that’s where Judge Monette comes in.
The state’s indignation at being the subject of such a strongly worded protective order seems to leak through the dry language of the documents filed by its lawyer.  She is Jennifer Myka, the special assistant attorney general who represents the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL), which oversees the Office of the Public Guardian.
In addition to appealing the Probate Court’s order to Orleans Superior Court, thus involving every court that sits in the old county courthouse on Main Street, Ms. Myka went to Probate Court to seek the order’s “immediate termination.”  That motion is scheduled for hearing on Thursday, October 2.
She argues that the Probate Court lacks jurisdiction in the case because Family Court has exclusive jurisdiction over Mr. St. Francis’ guardianship.
She refers to Mr. St. Francis’ attorney, Tim Yarrow of Hyde Park, as his “apparent” attorney, arguing that the commissioner of DAIL has the exclusive power to obtain legal advice on his behalf.
Ms. Myka complains that the September 4 hearing was “ex parte,” meaning that one side — the state — was not present.
“It was improper for this Court to entertain allegations this scandalous on ex parte basis,” she wrote, “and to restrict the participation of the State without any effort to grant the State a right to be heard.”
The allegations she refers to can be found in two affidavits filed in Probate Court.
One, from investigator Carroll Billado, is based on an August 8 telephone conversation with Mr. St. Francis who, Mr. Billado wrote, “wants the public to hear about his terrible experiences in the ‘Safe Choices’ Program.”
The investigator, a former Orleans County Sheriff’s deputy, wrote that Mr. St. Francis “is very concerned that when he files paperwork with the court system, that the ‘Safe Choices’ Program will retaliate against him.”
He told Mr. Billado he had been in Safe Choices for nine years.
“The ‘Safe Choices’ Program staff has said ‘If you try to leave the program, we will put you in jail,’” Mr. Billado wrote.  “The ‘Safe Choices’ Program staff has said ‘We’ll testify against you to keep you in the program.’”
“The ‘Safe Choices’ Program staff calls him a ‘liar’ all the time and says, ‘We don’t believe you’ when he denies having a deviant fantasy or denies masturbating,” the affidavit continues.
Mr. St. Francis told Mr. Billado he had two seizures while living at the main house in Lowell, and was taken to North Country Hospital by ambulance.  He currently lives alone in a nearby cottage, and told the investigator he is afraid he might not get help if he has another seizure.
A second affidavit was signed by a 24-year-old man who spent five years in the Safe Choices program, and lived at the Lowell House while Mr. St. Francis was there.
His affidavit says Mr. St. Francis was frequently accused by his therapist of having sex with animals, including chickens and goats.
“Mr. St. Francis denies these things,” Mr. Billado’s affidavit says.  “Mr. St. Francis wants a ‘normal’ life, relationship and family, like anyone else.”
The 24-year-old man’s affidavit said that the therapist and the Safe Choices staff told Mr. St. Francis and “all the guys, including me, ‘We will make you go to jail if you leave the ‘Safe Choices’ Program.’”
His affidavit says that John Ullrich of Barton, a “community integration specialist” working at the Lowell House, hung a picture of a rooster on Mr. St. Francis’ bedroom door.  “I believe that John Ullrich did that to make fun of George, because he thought George had sex with birds and other animals,” the affidavit says.  “I knew that was a cruel thing to do.”
The 24-year-old complained to other staff, he said, and they made Mr. Ullrich take the picture down.  Mr. Ullrich, the affidavit says, called Mr. St. Francis “George of the Jungle,” and “Curious George,” and made “cluck cluck” sounds when he saw him.
Mr. Ullrich had no comment on that allegation Tuesday night.  But Kathy Aiken, coordinator of the Safe Choices program, said “that isn’t the way it played out.”
According to a description of the program written for a state legislator in 2003, Safe Choices had 17 clients who all had “problematic sexual behaviors.”
Seven had been sent to the program through the court process because they were found to be incompetent to stand trial and represented a danger to others.
Five had been returned to Vermont from out-of-state placements.
Three were placed in Safe Choices “proactively” by family members who were also their guardians.
And two were put in the program by state-appointed guardians “because they were engaging in substantiated problematic sexual behaviors but had avoided adjudication.”
In 2003 the care of those 17 men cost the program more than $1.2-million, with the cost per man ranging from $20,252 to $112,954.
The cost of maintaining one man at Lowell House in 2006, a program document shows, totaled $187,766.
Eric Grims, executive director of Northeast Kingdom Human Services, said Tuesday that he thinks Safe Choices currently has 18 to 20 clients.  Without doing some research, he said, he could not separate Safe Choices’ budget from the $15-million his agency’s developmental services division spends annually on services for well over 100 people with developmental disabilities.
According to criminal court records, Mr. St. Francis’ stay at Lowell House has not been uneventful.
In Orleans District Court Tuesday he pled innocent to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct.
According to the affidavit of State Police Corporal Paul Mosher, a staff member at Lowell House complained on August 17 that Mr. St. Francis entered the main house carrying a steak knife and pointed it at him.  The staff member told the officer that he felt threatened, and told Mr. St. Francis to drop the knife.  He took the knife away, he told the officer, and Mr. St. Francis left the house.
According to court records, Mr. St. Francis was ordered to report for an evaluation of his competency to stand trial.
Mr. St. Francis was arrested at Lowell House in September 2005 and charged with a “prohibited act” after a female staff member complained that he had reached around her waist and “started to push his groin into her buttocks,” according to the affidavit in the case.
Though a long series of hearings were scheduled to establish whether he was competent to stand trial, he pled no contest to the misdemeanor in May 2006 and was given a six-to-12-month sentence, suspended with probation.  Among the conditions of his probation were that he stick to his mental health plan and abide by the rules of his group home.
But in August 2006 another female worker at Lowell House complained that Mr. St. Francis put his arms around her and pushed against her with his body.
Court records say Mr. St. Francis admitted that he had violated probation and was ordered to serve five days of the sentence imposed on the original charge.  He was once again put on probation through August 14 this year, and told to abide by his mental health plan and the rules of the group home.
The state’s lawyer in the probate case, Ms. Myka, accompanied her written argument with a 2005 Family Court decision by Judge Dennis Pearson on an earlier petition to end Mr. St. Francis’ state guardianship, filed by Dayton Lanphere of Wolcott, who had helped care for him during a two-month stay at Nightingale Respite Services.
The judge denied the petition on the grounds that Mr. Lanphere was not an “interested person” as defined in the law governing state guardianships, and so had no standing to file the petition.
But Judge Pearson noted that the Commissioner of DAIL, as the supervisor of the Office of the Public Guardian, had failed to comply with the law:
“The Commissioner has failed to discharge his/her yearly duty to provide ‘an annual review of the social adjustment and progress’ of GSF (Mr. St. Francis), and to report on and ‘annually review the legal status’ of GSF and determine whether continued guardianship is still necessary and appropriate.  There have been no such written reports or reviews of GSF at all since 1996….”
However, the judge noted later, “no remedy exists, nor is any sanction or other relief identified, for the Commissioner’s obvious, and unexplained failure here….”
Asked about the judge’s findings on Monday, Gail Falk, who heads the Office of the Public Guardian, said “that was a good wakeup call for us.”
Since then, she said, her office documents its reviews of the people whose lives it oversees in an annual report.

Safe Choices 2 – Unhappy memories

by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle October 8, 2008

Two former clients of the Safe Choices program who went into the program under cloudy circumstances said in recent interviews they were treated as if they were sex offenders and threatened with jail if they left the program.

One of them, a homeless man, said he signed himself into the program on the belief he would receive socializing skills.
The other went into the program as a teenager, following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.  During his participation, he was also a resident at the group home known as the Lowell House.  He eventually left the program and presently works as a hired hand on a dairy farm.
“I feel like I wasted five years for nothing,” he said over the course of an interview last week that exceeded an hour.  “They never helped me with nothing.”
Their stories came to light as Probate Judge John Monette issued an order last month to protect George St. Francis, presently a resident in the program at Lowell House, from any harassment or threats by the program’s staff and the Office of the Public Guardian.
The judge issued his order after the courts received petitions from Mr. St. Francis that his state guardian be terminated and one of his own choice, Janet Reed of Craftsbury, be appointed his private guardian.
Judge Monette was expected to rule last Thursday on an appeal of his order by the state.  But on Wednesday, October 1, the case was transferred to Orleans County Family Court by Judge Walter Morris.
The transfer order consolidates two pieces of litigation, including one to end the state’s guardianship of Mr. St. Francis.
An attempt to learn when the hearing will be heard in Family Court met with no results.  Citing confidentiality rules, County Court Clerk Laura Dolgin refused to acknowledge whether such a case exists.
Because of rules that seek to protect the privacy of citizens deemed to be of significantly below-average intelligence, Mr. St. Francis’ fight to wrest control of his life away from the state will be conducted behind closed doors.  But in an investigator’s affidavit filed in Probate Court, Mr. St. Francis said he “wants the public to hear about his terrible experiences in the Safe Choices Program.”
In an effort to learn more about the program, the Chronicle talked to two “consumers” who have left Safe Choices.
Run by the Developmental Disabilities Division of Northeast Kingdom Human Services, Safe Choices was started in 1993.  According to a letter he wrote in 2003 to describe the program to a state senator, Executive Director Eric Grims wrote of the need for a noninstitutional program that would treat clients with “problematic sexual behaviors” while still staying true to the axiom “The people’s safety is the highest law.”
Initially, the program was founded, according to the letter, “to deliver services to three mentally retarded clients who had been charged with sexual crimes but were subsequently found incompetent to stand trial.”  Over the years, the program has evolved to offer services to a more diverse clientele, who are considered to be developmentally disabled and have “problematic sexual behaviors” that never landed them in court.
The program offers a variety of services including employment support, crisis intervention, therapy (group and individual with a licensed psychologist), trained home providers, small group residential care, and psychiatric care.
Of the two men who came forward to be interviewed about their experiences in the Safe Choices program, one was a resident in the Lowell House, where Mr. St. Francis lives, while the other continued to live with a respite worker within the community.  In exchange for their stories, each was promised his identity would not be revealed.
Wendell is in his early twenties and appears to be outgoing and confident.  He answers questions without being cued by his attorney, and he is clearly proud to have a job and own a car that he drove to the interview.  He went to the Safe Choices program when he came under a cloud of sexual allegation while still living at home.
“My stepfather wanted me to go into the program,” he said.  “He was my guardian at the time.  They did what they had to do at the time and that was it.  They said I molested a 16-year-old.”
It is not clear how many allegations there were or who made them.  Wendell denied any wrongdoing during the interview.
Neither he nor another former client of the program — who for the purposes of this story shall be known as Donald — has been convicted of any sex crime.
Donald is a 37-year-old man who came to the interview dressed in a jacket and tie, and accompanied by his caretaker, Floyd, whom he has lived with for eight years.  Tall with a wide-eyed look that suggests some disability, he appears to be shy and withdrawn except for a huge belly laugh that comes out of him with surprising ease.
While never a resident of the Lowell House or any group home, Donald was in the Safe Choices program from July 2002 to December 2006.  He said he voluntarily entered the program hoping to improve his writing and reading skills.  “I was looking for help,” he said.
A special education student who graduated from St. Johnsbury Academy, Donald said he became a homeless person when his caretaker failed to pay the rent.  Out on the streets he was picked up by police when somebody said he was dangerous.  A Littleton, New Hampshire, family bailed him out of jail, and his present caretaker, Floyd, came into the picture when someone from Kirby asked if Donald could live with him.  From there he enrolled in the program, signing an agreement on July 29, 2002, with Northeast Kingdom Human Services, declaring:
“It has been explained to me that the services (shared living provider, respite, service coordination, day program) are available to me ONLY through the Safe Choices program because I have been identified as a person with problematic sexual behaviors.”
In signing the agreement, Donald said, he was familiar with the program “ because I was in it a short time before.”  But this time around he quickly became discouraged with it, complaining it focused almost exclusively on sex.
He said he had day programs five days a week in which a worker would take him for drives.  “Ride around the countryside and ask you how many times you masturbated,” Donald recalled.  “I told one day worker 65 times, and that shut him up.”
At another time on a ride around the countryside, they came upon what appeared to be a cow’s skull.  The day worker asked Donald if that turned him on.  As in the rides, sex reputedly dominated his therapy sessions.  According to Donald, he was told it was okay to have sex with “chickens and goats and all that.”  Even to the point, he added, with a knot hole in a wall or tree.
“I really didn’t know what to think,” he said, as he recalled the incident during his interview.  “I said, this is a new one.  They said if I left the program, they would send me to jail.”
Sex was also at issue in the group therapy sessions in which Wendell was a participant.  The group sessions were held in Newport, once a week.  There was an afternoon group and a morning group.
“They said I had sex fantasies toward kids.  I told them I did not,” he recalled.  “It turned into an argument.  After a while I learned to just keep quiet.”
A funding sheet with a starting date of July 1, 2006, indicates that yearly costs for providing Wendell with services and a place to live came in at $187,766.  Of that amount, $4,608 was spent on counseling.  The lion’s share of the bill belonged to the $138,811 charged for his residency at the Lowell House.
Wendell said he spent five years in the Safe Choices program, and was constantly moved around.  “The program kept me in control.  Moving me from place to place.  I stayed at more than 12 places.”
He also said, with a note of sarcasm, that they couldn’t find him a steady home because he was perceived as a sex offender.  He does, though, admit to having a temper.
At some point during his stay at the Lowell House he got into an altercation over some missing food.  “We had a grocery list for two weeks, but stuff was missing.  I kinda got mad about it.  I pushed a staff member.”
Later in the interview, recalling the incident, he said he got mad because the staff worker evidently had not read his file.  “I get pissed when they don’t leave me alone,” he said.
The altercation occurred on May 11, 2006. Police were called, and Wendell went to court in August.  Eventually he was given a one-year deferred sentence.  Special terms of his probation required him to be supervised by Safe Choices.  Two weeks after his probation was up, Wendell left the program.  He has been out of the program for roughly a year.
“They weren’t treating me good.  They constantly called me names,” he said.  “I had a funny feeling they were over-medicating me to keep me in.  After three months out, I weaned myself off the medications.”
Throughout the time he was in the program, Wendell’s mother served as his guardian.  A court will hear his petition later this month to get on with his life without a guardian.  Donald, on the other hand, refused all attempts to have a state guardian appointed for him.
“They would own me,” he said.
Safe Choices keeps its clients under closer supervision.  Both Wendell and Donald allege that it’s an arm length’s supervision that requires them to apply for permission to enter a given store or place.
Donald recalled the time he wanted to go to the funeral of a friend, who been killed in a skiing accident.  “They didn’t want me to go,” he said, speaking of the program’s staff.  “Said I’d have sex with the corpse.”
Some critics of the program express fears that such tight supervision insulates clients from the community, and prevents even family member from seeing how they’re doing.
“They wouldn’t let him see his parents,” said Floyd who has lived and provided care for Donald in both New Hampshire and Vermont.  “They criticized me because on holidays, I’d let him see his parents.”
When Donald left Safe Choices, the program cut off Floyd’s annual stipend of roughly $18,000.  Donald presently receives about $754 a month from SSI (Supplemental Security Income).
Neither Floyd nor Donald believes he was well served by the program.
“I became concerned about the program three months into it,” said Floyd.  “There are other things in life beside sex.  Sex.  It was constant.  Some days after the day program, it might take two days to get him settled down.  He felt he was evil, no good.”
Donald said that at some point in the program he was given a “P test.”  That’s shorthand for a penile plethysmograph test, a highly invasive and controversial test that measures what sexually arouses men.
The program deemed Donald a high risk.  Among the steps he was asked to take by his therapist was to keep a fantasy log.  Donald said he refused to do it, but the day workers took over and made entries for him.
“They wrote them in their own ways.  If I saw young women, they said I wanted to have sex with them.”
Eventually, Donald was asked to leave the program.  “They didn’t want me,” he said.  “I don’t know why.”
“Does anyone ever graduate from the program?” he was asked.
“You never do in that program,” he said.  “They have you the rest of your life.”
Editor’s note:  In an interview Monday, the staff of Safe Choices said that some of the stories told by Wendell and Donald are simply untrue.  Next week the Chronicle will report on the program from the point of view of the people who run it.



Safe Choices 3 – Staff defends program

by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle October 15, 2008

NEWPORT — The people who run the Safe Choices program from a suite of offices on Seymour Lane are in a bind.  They work under strict rules of confidentiality, rules that protect the privacy of clients who have two strikes against them.  The clients have been found to be developmentally disabled or, in an older term still in official use, mentally retarded; and they have been accused — but with rare exception never convicted — of sexual offenses.

If these “consumers,” as Safe Choices calls them, choose to attack the program or its employees, nobody suspends the rules.  In refuting any charges, the staff can’t name names or discuss specific incidents in ways that would identify the participants.
At a meeting last week, the key people behind Safe Choices fell back on general, sometimes passionate defenses of the program itself, its mission, its practices, and its ethics.
As to specific allegations of staff misconduct, they could only offer assurances that amounted to this:  Trust me.
One complaint was that a staff member at Lowell House, where three clients live, teased one of them who had been accused of having sex with chickens, among other animals — a charge he denied.  The alleged teasing included putting a picture of a chicken on the man’s bedroom door, and making “clucking” noises in his presence.
Would such staff behavior be acceptable, Safe Choices Coordinator Kathy Aiken was asked.
“Absolutely not,” Ms. Aiken replied, “and it’s not true.”
Later in the interview she was asked how she knew the story was untrue.
“There were other witnesses,” she said.
And later still, in a telephone conversation, Ms. Aiken revisited the issue.  “The rooster thing as reported to you is not true,” she said.  “I’m not saying there wasn’t something with a rooster.”
Another allegation brought to the Chronicle was that consumers were threatened that if they left the program they would go to jail.
“We would never say such a thing,” Ms. Aiken said, “and I would never work for a program that said such a thing.”
However, in some cases such a statement would be the simple truth, Ms. Aiken noted.  At least two consumers known to the Chronicle were accused of misdemeanor offenses by Safe Choices staff, convicted, and placed on probation.
Both were ordered to return to the program and obey its rules.  Had either of them left Safe Choices while on probation, they might well have gone to jail.
However, the Chronicle talked to one former participant who was not on probation, and said he was threatened with jail if he left Safe Choices.  He said he was finally asked to leave the program, and did so without going to jail.