|by Paul Lefebvre copyright the Chronicle December 23, 2008|
|NEWPORT — The press won a qualified victory last week by being allowed access to a Family Court hearing involving a petition by a Safe Choices client to get out the program and be served by a private guardian of his own choice.
Judge Robert Bent opened the courtroom, but said he may reverse his ruling, depending on issues that come before the bench as the hearings continue.
The case involves 30-year-old George St. Francis, who has been a participant in the program for years. Currently he is a resident of the program’s Lowell House, where he is under 24-hour supervision.
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.
Over the last few months, however, Mr. St. Francis has been showing up in three of the county’s four courts: District Court, Family Court, and Probate Court. And although each court serves a separate and distinct legal function, in the case of Mr. St. Francis, the arguments have been strikingly similar.
Mr. St. Francis is a man who wants out and wants his case to see the light of day.
“The subject has expressed a strong desire to have these proceedings held in public and has expressively waived any individual right to privacy, which he may be entitled to under law,” argued Newport attorney Philip White, who is representing the Chronicle of Barton.
Arguments to open a procedure, which are closed by law, were held in camera, out of view of the public.
But in a motion for access filed on the day of the hearing, Mr. White argued that a closed-door proceeding would violate Mr. Francis’ constitutional rights.
“The Subject of these proceedings has a right to public review of his claims that the government has arbitrarily, capriciously, and unlawfully deprived him of his liberty,” wrote Mr. White in a three-page brief.
Judge Bent opened the courtroom, but cautioned that his ruling only applied to Friday’s proceedings. That decision could be reversed, he said, if issues came up touching on Mr. St. Francis’ right to privacy.
“May revisit it; not denying it,” he said in regards to the paper’s motion for access.
Still uncertain is whether the paper will have to resubmit its arguments for access prior to the next round of hearings.
A letter to the Family Court Clerk from Mr. White Monday requested he be kept informed on scheduling so “I can continue to represent the Chronicle on this issue at any time a motion to close certain aspects of these proceeding may be made.”
The December 22 letter also requests an opportunity for the paper to participate in a review of the case files to determine what should be kept confidential and sealed.
In his decision to open Friday’s hearing to reporters, Judge Bent noted that the issues before the bench were procedural and would not violate Mr. St. Francis’ privacy.
Little came out of the hearing except a ruling that Family Court has exclusive jurisdiction in the case. Judge Bent handed down that ruling in response to the state’s objection that a Probate Court order this fall was out of line.
Issued by Probate Court Judge John Monette, that order sternly directed the Office of Public Guardian and much of the Safe Choices staff “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.
While Judge Bent vacated that order last Friday, still pending is the issue of whether Mr. St. Francis will be allowed to choose his own guardian and leave Safe Choices.
At Friday’s hearing Mr. St. Francis was represented by Morrisville attorney Tim Yarrow. Also present was Brighton attorney Daniel Keenan, who represents Janet Reed, an Albany woman who has petitioned the court to act as Mr. St. Francis’ private guardian.
by Paul Lefebvre
copyright the Chronicle February 25, 2009
NEWPORT — A Safe Choices client moved significantly closer to ending his state custody and trading a public guardian for one of his own choice during a Family Court hearing here that was closed to the public following arguments before the bench.
While no order has been handed down by the court yet, the state appears ready to allow George St. Francis, 30, to choose his own guardian and leave the Safe Choices program — a program founded roughly 15 years ago as a way to deal with suspected sex offenders who have been found incompetent to stand trial.
Attorney Jennifer Myka, representing the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL), told the court that the only issue to be resolved was whether the private guardian chosen by Mr. St. Francis was adequate.
The private guardian under consideration is Janet Reed. She has been a critic of the Safe Choices program in the past, but in the present case has declined to talk to the press.
In Family Court last Thursday, Ms. Reed supported Ms. Myka’s motion that the hearing on the guardianship issue be closed.
Judge Robert Bent did not rule independently on Ms. Myka’s motion, but said instead he would wait until one of the three attorneys at the hearing raised an objection to the press’s presence in the courtroom.
That objection came as soon as Ms. Reed took the stand and was asked how she came to meet Mr. St. Francis. At the direction of Judge Bent, the Chronicle’s reporter and its attorney, Phil White, left the room.
Last week’s hearing could mark the beginning of the end of a long and sustained legal battle that stretches back to 2003 when Mr. St. Francis first tried to leave Safe Choices and replace his public guardian with a private one. That attempt failed, as did another in 2005. But in the fall of 2008 the floodgates opened up.
After a September 4 hearing on Mr. St. Francis’ petition to change guardians and leave Safe Choices, Probate Judge John Monette responded with sternly worded order suggesting that something may be amiss.
The judge ordered the Office of Public Guardianship and members of Safe Choices staff to “refrain from any and all acts constituting abuse, retaliation, intimidation, humiliation, ridicule, exploitation, threat, or harassment” of Mr. St. Francis.
The order also gave Mr. St. Francis access to an attorney of his own choosing, and instructed his state keepers not to change his medication in ways that might hinder his ability to function.
In support of Mr. St. Francis’ request that his public guardianship be terminated and that Ms. Reed of Craftsbury be named his private guardian, two affidavits were filed at the same time alleging that the Safe Choices staff had treated their client with a heavy hand. In one, Mr. St. Francis said he was routinely threatened with jail if he tried to leave the program, where he had been a client for nine years.
Another affidavit, from a 24-year-old man who had spent five years in Safe Choices and lived at the Lowell House while Mr. St. Francis was there, alleged that the program’s therapist accused Mr. St. Francis of having sex with chickens and goats.
The allegations gained traction in the weeks that followed when two former clients gave interviews to the Chronicle, complaining of the treatment they had received while participating in the program. As a condition of the interviews, their identities were not disclosed. But like Mr. St. Francis, each said he was threatened with jail if he sought to leave the program and seek an alternative. And each claimed he was repeatedly made to feel as if he was a sexual deviant.
One eventually left the program, and later convinced Judge Monette that he no longer needed the supervision of his private guardian.
The other, who had entered the program on his own, presently lives with a caretaker of his own choosing.
Throughout his court battles, Mr. St. Francis has asked that his plight be made public and that the press be allowed to follow his case at hearings that are usually closed. That insistence was the first order of business taken up last Thursday by Judge Bent.
Ms. Myka, who represented the state office of Public Guardianship, along with DAIL, told the court the press should be excluded because personal details would emerge from the hearing that would be “inappropriate to be made public.”
Moreover, Ms. Myka argued that restrictions regarding the issue of guardianship were comparable to those involving juvenile hearings. And that each demonstrated “that the Legislature knows how to create a confidential, closed hearing when it so desires.”
In her motion, filed on the day of last week’s hearing, Ms. Myka said the law governing a closed hearing in such cases was clear.
“The statutory presumption is for a closed hearing,” she wrote in her brief. “Though the Court may permit the attendance by individuals not necessary to the hearing, it is under no obligation to do so. This is true even if the person requesting participation has a proper interest.”
For the press, the issue was twofold: an open hearing as sought by Mr. St. Francis; and limited access to the files in the case.
Mr. White told the court there was a compelling need for public access in light of several articles by the Chronicle, raising the issue of government malfeasance. He noted that the paper realized there would sensitive information in the files, that a court-ordered waiver to confidentiality would not be absolute.
The court, however, had an issue of its own.
Judge Bent said he had a roomful of people who had come to Family Court to discuss the issue of guardianship, and they had come with the belief the procedure would be confidential.
The court went on to note that where the line should be drawn between the state’s interest in confidentiality and the public’s right to access was open to discussion, and that any ruling in the case could set a precedent.
He said the issue was akin to the age-old question of whether a camel’s nose should be allowed under the tent.
The judge turned to Mr. St. Francis’ attorney, Tim Yarrow of Morrisville, and asked if his client wanted the hearing to be open.
Mr. Yarrow replied that Mr. St. Francis has consistently wanted the media to “be aware of the process and have access to information” — except that which was personal.
The attorney went on to say that beyond the guardian issue, there was information in the case that should be part of the public record.
“What would that be?” asked the judge.
Mr. Yarrow cited the stipulation that both he and the state were negotiating to turn Mr. St. Francis over to a private guardian. And like Mr. White, he cited the need of a procedure for reviewing the files.
But the three guardians in court last Thursday unanimously sided with the state’s position that it would be in the “best interest of Mr. St. Francis to close this hearing.”
Their positions may have impressed the judge, who said he would go along with them. As for Mr. St. Francis’ desire to keep the hearing open, the court was doubly dubious.
Twice Judge Bent rejected the ability of Mr. St. Francis to speak for himself:
“Not going to take the respondent capable of expressing assent,” the judge said at one time.
“His waiver is minimal to the court at this point,” he said at another.
Mr. White argued the court might be missing the point of why the case had landed in Family Court. He said that in talking to the press, Mr. St. Francis had “blown the whistle on some grave improprieties” that had led to the present hearing.
“The only reason we’re sitting in this hearing today is because of the press’s intervention in this case,” he said.
And the fact that a deal was in the works to transfer Mr. St. Francis from a public guardianship to a private one, said Mr. White, suggested there was some substance to allegations raised about the treatment he had received while a client in the Safe Choices program.
In the end, Judge Bent elected to make no decision, saying he would leave it up to the lawyers “to flag the procedure” and ask the press to leave if they deemed the evidence they were hearing confidential.
copyright the Chronicle Feburary 25, 2009
“Trust me, this is for your own good.”
Anybody who hears those words knows that something unpleasant is about to happen. We suspect that George St. Francis, though only about 30 years old, has heard them far, far more often than the average, or “normal” Vermonter.
Mr. St. Francis has been legally evaluated, and found to have “significantly subaverage intellectual function.” That finding was part of a 1996 proceeding that, in essence, took control of his life away from Mr. St. Francis and gave it to the state of Vermont. Deciding that Mr. St. Francis was a threat to the public safety, a potential sex offender, the state put him in a program called Safe Choices and kept him there for years.
In Safe Choices, Mr. St. Francis’ life has been shrouded in secrecy. The state and its agents say the secrecy is necessary to protect his privacy. Maybe it is. Maybe we have no business talking about his intelligence.
But the secrecy also serves to protect the state and its agent, Northeast Kingdom Human Services, from any public scrutiny.
Mr. St. Francis is a stubborn soul, and his efforts to free himself have poked some holes in the shroud. Though them, we have managed a few observations. Safe Choices is enormously expensive to the public. Far more expensive than the prison cells which await “normal” people who are actually convicted of the sort of offenses that Mr. St. Francis might, or might not, commit.
By the accounts of Mr. St. Francis and a witness who, unhappily, spent five years as his companion in Safe Choices, the program’s treatment of George St. Francis was also confining, demeaning, intimidating, and humiliating. According to one sworn court document, a Safe Choices staff member called Mr. St. Francis “Curious George” and “George of the Jungle” and made clucking noises meant as a reference to his supposed sexual feelings toward chickens.
But, we are assured, Mr. St. Francis was in Safe Choices for his own good.
When he tried to get out, to substitute a private guardian for his state guardian, Mr. St. Francis on two occasions couldn’t hire his own lawyer. He wasn’t considered capable of making such a choice. The lawyers supplied for him opposed the motions to end the state guardianships. His lawyers were working for the other side. But it was for his own good.
Mr. St. Francis finally did manage to find his own lawyer, and a woman who knew something about Safe Choices and was willing to serve as his private guardian.
Last week in court it looked like the state was finally ready to give up; to agree to end its guardianship and appoint the private guardian Mr. St. Francis wants.
It seems that, after all these years, Mr. St. Francis will finally get a say in what’s for his own good. — C.B.
by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle May 20, 2009
Lowell House is a modest farmhouse that sits at the top of a twisty dead-end road off Route 100, south of Lowell Village. It’s not a place anyone is likely to just happen by. And if anyone did, he would not be made to feel welcome.
“It’s almost as if they wanted the place to be hush-hush,” said Fred Latour, who used to work there, “as if no one was to know they were up there. I equate it to the Gestapo.”
“To me it was just a place to keep them, out of the community,” said Cathy Lantagne, who worked at Lowell House for five years, and for its supervising community mental health agency, Northeast Kingdom Human Services, for 17 years.
“I wasn’t doing anything to help them get better,” Ms. Lantagne said in a recent interview. “We couldn’t interact, other than a handshake. If they were unhappy we weren’t allowed to comfort them. They weren’t interacting so they could practice appropriate behavior. They didn’t have the opportunity to. They played board games and cards at the house, maybe exercise a bit. There wasn’t a lot to do there.”
The “they” that Mr. Latour and Ms. Lantagne were referring to are “consumers” of a program called Safe Choices which Northeast Kingdom Human Services operates to control men who have been judged to have two serious problems: a mental disability and a propensity to commit sex crimes.
In an interview last fall, Safe Choices was described by Eric Grims, executive director of Northeast Kingdom Human Services, as “the safety net for the state.”
Safe Choices was founded to deal with accused sex offenders who, under constitutional standards, lacked the mental ability to understand the legal process, and so could not be brought to trial.
“We believe that the people’s safety is the highest law,” Mr. Grims said. Once that safety is established, he added, Safe Choices tries to provide its consumers with “a full, satisfying life while still being sensitive to the public good.”
It is by that secondary standard, the quality of its clients’ lives, that Lowell House fails miserably, according to Mr. Latour and Ms. Lantagne.
Only a few of the 18 men who are in the custody of the Safe Choices live at Lowell House. Most are in private homes under the supervision of an individual or a couple. Others are in Roy Mountain House, a facility in Barnet that is similar to Lowell House, but with a higher level of supervision.
This is the eighth in a series of articles the Chronicle has published about Safe Choices, focusing on residents’ complaints about their treatment at Lowell House, and about their legal efforts to break free of its confinement.
It is the first written from the perspective of people who worked at Lowell House. Sadly, much of what they have to say echoes a comment from “Wendell,” a young man who managed to escape from both Lowell House and Safe Choices, and take up an independent life as a farmhand:
“I feel like I wasted five years of my life for nothing,” Wendell said of his stay at Lowell House.
Though both former employees express deep frustration with a combination of rigid rules and supervisory indifference that made life at Lowell House miserable, both left for more concrete reasons.
Ms. Lantagne said she moved within the mental health agency to Safe Choices so she could work a night shift at Lowell House and care for her mother in the daytime. She was forced to take a day shift last fall, and after failing to negotiate a return to night work, quit Safe Choices just before Easter.
Mr. Latour was fired by Safe Choices over an incident that occurred outside Lowell House between two young men while he was providing respite services at his home.
Mr. Latour felt he was unfairly denied a hearing on the incident, and appealed his firing to the Vermont Supreme Court, acting as his own attorney. He lost his appeal.
Mr. Latour served two tours in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy, then worked as a high school business teacher before retiring to Barton.
Though it was created in 1993 to deal with accused sex offenders who could not be tried, such people make up only about a third of its current load of Safe Choices’ 18 “consumers.”
“None of the guys I worked with were there on a court order,” Mr. Latour said of the clients at Lowell House, which accommodates four men. “They had no charges against them. They were just put there because somebody thought they ought to be there.” That somebody, Mr. Latour said, could be a guardian or a parent.
“Once they get there it’s a life sentence,” Mr. Latour said. “They can never leave — unless they have somebody like Trudy.”
(Gertrude “Trudy” Miller is a Newport attorney who has worked to help several men find their way out of Lowell House and Safe Choices, including Wendell.)
Mr. Latour charges that the money Northeast Kingdom Human Services earns from Safe Choices clients motivates them to keep them in the program.
“I guess if I had somebody corralled like that, I wouldn’t want them to leave, either,” he said.
According to a document supplied to the Chronicle, it cost $187,766 to keep Wendell at Lowell House for one year. By Safe Choices’ own account, the cost per client ranges from $32,270 to $198,637 a year, and averages $108,871 per client. That’s more than double the $43,000 average annual cost of keeping a Vermonter in prison.
Ms. Lantagne said she was instructed, when she turned in an accounting of her time at work, to report that she had devoted two or three hours a week to a particular client.
“I was told to bill it like that,” she said, even if she hadn’t spent time with him. Indeed, since she spent most of her time on the night shift, the client was asleep while she was at work.
“They said ‘That’s just the way we’ve got to bill,’” she recalled. “I said ‘Isn’t that just double-dipping?’”
Both Mr. Latour and Ms. Lantagne said their superiors in Safe Choices failed to support practical, common-sense solutions to problems faced by the clients.
“I wanted to start these guys on math and stuff like that,” said Mr. Latour, the former teacher. “I got no backing from the agency.”
Mr. Latour said his teaching efforts were discouraged by the management, and ceased altogether after he left Lowell House.
“There was nothing done for these people at the house,” he said. “I was a well-paid babysitter. Keep them away from people. Keep people away from them.”
Mr. Lantagne confirmed that she, too, felt like a babysitter at Lowell House.
“I always wanted to do more,” she said. “One client liked to play the guitar. I couldn’t get him to a nursing home to play.”
Ms. Lantagne said she asked “them” for permission for her client to entertain seniors, but never heard any more about it.
“Another one was interested in going to church. I’d be willing to take him.”
Again, she said, she asked her superiors but got no reply. “Just about all the requests I made were ignored.”
Mr. Latour did manage, at his own expense, to hire a limousine and take his Lowell House clients to a Derby restaurant to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, though initially his supervisors “weren’t going to allow it.”
Ms. Lantagne and Mr. Latour were “residential workers” at Lowell House. Enrichment activities were supposed to be in the hands of employees called “community integration specialists,” CIS in the jargon of the program.
Ms. Lantagne was not impressed by their performance. A CIS might pick a client up and take him for a ride, she said, but communications were poor, and she recalls clients “waiting hour after hour” for a CIS to appear.
“I would call a supervisor and say ‘These guys are getting pissed off.’ But sometimes the workers would just never appear,” she said. “Then they wonder why the clients blow up.”
When they did show up, Ms. Lantagne said, the CIS “would take clients to stores, or just to look around, go fishing, whatever they’d like to do.”
But running up too many miles was an issue, she said, so sometimes the CIS would “sit at home with them and play cards. Sometimes the clients would get so bored they’d just go into their rooms, and that staff would just sit there.”
One client brought two baby goats to Lowell House from a farm where he was working. When one of them got sick, Ms. Lantagne offered to take it to the veterinarian, and pay the fee herself.
“They said I couldn’t because it was a boundary issue,” she said. “I took this to all the supervisors. I kind of blew up about it. I wish I’d just taken the goat and done it.”
She’s convinced that one of the goats was killed, to the dismay of the client.
“That has haunted me since it happened,” Ms. Lantagne said. “I’m an animal lover, big time.”
When a flock of chickens was neglected by the clients, she collected bread crumbs and sneaked it to them, she recalled, though her superiors told her it was the clients’ responsibility to budget enough money to buy chicken feed.
“I feel like they’re POWs in there,” Ms. Lantagne said of the clients. “They have nothing to look forward to.
“My goal isn’t to close the place down. It’s to make it livable. They should be able to go out in the community, to have guests in, not to be under somebody’s thumb with every breath they take.”
Mr. Latour phrases his fundamental criticism of Lowell House as a question: “How are you going to help them get back in society if you don’t allow them to mingle with people? The answer to that is it was never meant to be. They want to control them for the rest of their lives.”
by Eric Grims and Kathy Aiken
copyright the Chronicle June 3, 2009
The issue of how best to deal with sexual offenders is one that has been splashed over headlines nationally. In Vermont we’ve had our own tragic experiences over the years, including, most recently, the Brooke Bennett case. Such cases have led to strict criminal sanctions. However, the difficult question arises when such strict sanctions are not warranted and yet there is still a need to protect society from sexual offenders, as is the case with developmentally disabled offenders. We are then confronted with the dilemma of how to plan for safety, simultaneously respect individuals’ constitutional rights, and remain mindful of taxpayers’ resources.
The criminal justice system provides only a partial solution to these problems. More jails and prisons do not address the underlying issues that lead individuals to offend. Instead, society has recognized that for certain offenders the ideal setting is one which provides varying levels of supervision as individuals receive treatment to reduce the risk of committing future offenses. This is particularly true when the offenders come from the developmentally disabled community, for whom a prison setting would provide inappropriate or inadequate services.
Our understanding about treatment to reduce risk of re-offense for individuals has advanced significantly. Risk assessment tools are useful in examining re-offense risk and the impact of treatment that employs cognitive behavioral strategies in the community with intensive supervision. The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, an international professional group for providers specializing in the treatment of sex offenders, and the federal government, through the Center for Sex Offender Management, identified such a treatment modality as the standard for effective services. Approximately 80 percent of the programs recognized as providing quality services utilize cognitive behavioral treatment with relapse prevention strategies. Programs that subscribe to these guidelines have been shown by independent research to have the lowest rates of re-offense.
Because of such compelling success rates, the program operating in our community, Safe Choices, has employed such techniques since its opening. For 15 years this program has done the difficult work of treating individuals with developmental disabilities who have committed sexual offenses but are incompetent to stand trial; are competent but out on orders of probation; or have been enrolled in the program by legal guardians. The program has always operated under strict legal, ethical, and moral standards, including regular review of the effectiveness of its policies and staff. In fact, as pointed out by former Commissioner of the Department of Aging and Independent Living Susan Besio’s report to the Vermont General Assembly, “developmental services staff receive substantial values training to sensitize them to individual rights, dignity of risk, autonomy, choice, and least restrictive alternatives.” The results speak for themselves, with an outstanding record of zero re-offenses against any community members from individuals that participated in Safe Choices since its opening. Prior to the implementation of such programs, individuals remained in communities without appropriate treatment, presenting an increased risk of re-offense. It must be noted that our programs are not jails, or secured facilities and our goal is to safely integrate our clients back into the community.
This program and others like it also emphasize providing individuals the opportunity to learn life skills, with the goal of understanding how they can integrate and make positive contributions to society. For clients that present lower risks, such services are the most cost effective way to address this problem. Higher risk clients need additional supervision, and thus additional resources, although as individuals thrive in treatment less supervision is needed and fewer resources to address community safety are required.
Such a model is strikingly different from the criminal justice setting, which provides limited treatment options, often creating a vicious cycle of re-offense and incarceration. In fact, a 2003 Department of Justice study showed that sex offenders coming out of prison have substantially higher rates of recidivism for new sex crimes than non-sex offenders. These higher rates of re-offense ultimately require taxpayers to commit significant and ongoing resources related to judicial and incarceration costs.
The issue of dealing with sexual offenders, specifically those developmentally disabled offenders who are high risk, is not an issue to take lightly or exploit for sensational exposés or flashy headlines. Vermonters should understand that dealing with problems surrounding this population creates an increasingly heavy strain on local agencies. Programs that address safety for our citizens while providing appropriate services to developmentally disabled offenders are resource intensive. Policy makers should engage in a reasoned dialogue recognizing our successes of the past, while attempting to address the certain challenges of the future. Without such a dialogue we will be doing a disservice to individuals in treatment, and to our community that is relying upon these programs to make the difficult decisions that underlie the concept of community safety.
Eric Grims is the executive director of Northeast Kingdom Human Services in Newport, and Kathy Aiken is the director of Safe Choices.
by Paul Lefebvre
copyright the Chronicle June 24, 2009
NEWPORT — An attempt by the state to allow a client of Safe Choices his freedom on the condition he waive his right to bring a suit against it appeared to gain little traction here in a hearing last week in Family Court.
Judge Robert Bent questioned if anyone has authority to prevent someone from suing the state.
“I think the law frowns on the extraction of those kind of requirements,” he said.
The hearing last Wednesday, June 17, was the latest chapter in a struggle by George St. Francis to be released from the supervision of a state guardian and put into the hands of one of his own choosing.
The case involves a 31-year-old man who has been a participant in the Safe Choices program for roughly 12 years. The program, which includes residential treatment centers like the Lowell House, 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 a criminal court.
The program has grown to include men, like Mr. St. Francis, who at the time of their placement in the program had not been charged with a sex crime, but were deemed to be at risk of offending.
Mr. St. Francis stepped into the public eye last fall when the probate court 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 him.
Since his case became public, others familiar with the program, including former clients and staff, have sharply criticized the way the program is being run and its failure to reintegrate clients into the community.
Assistant attorney general Jennifer Myka, representing the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL), has fought against opening the case to public scrutiny on grounds of protecting Mr. St. Francis’ confidentiality as a client of the state.
Last week she told the court she would agree to a guardian transfer only if Mr. Francis complies with certain conditions.
Just what those conditions are — and who should see them — formed much of the basis for the court hearing last week.
The most controversial of the conditions was an insistence by Ms. Myka that the transfer of guardians would only be permissible if Mr. St. Francis agreed not to sue the state.
“We feel it is not in Mr. St. Francis’ interest to continue to live a life of continued litigation regarding perceived negative actions by the state,” said Ms. Myka, after telling the court that litigation between the two parties has been going on for five or six years.
“There have been a host of statements and allegations made,” she said, characterizing some of them as inflammatory.
Tim Yarrow, who represents Mr. St. Francis, said he opposed any condition that prevented his client from suing the state.
“I’m not sure as his attorney I have the authority to make such a stipulation on his behalf,” he said at one point during the hearing. “I don’t believe the court has that authority either.”
Also at issue before the court was what records in the case should be made available to the public.
Through its attorney, Phil White, the Chronicle has requested access to files and continued access to hearings before Orleans County Family Court.
At an earlier hearing in February, the newspaper said it was not seeking access to confidential records dealing with Mr. St. Francis’ medical or mental health, or any evaluations stemming from his developmental disabilities.
In a recent written order, Judge Bent noted that the court is prohibited from disclosing any confidential information without Mr. St. Francis’ permission. The judge also found it would be “contrary to law” for the court to disclose an assessment prepared by a mental health official to determine the “degree of risk” Mr. St. Francis poses to the public.
As for other documents in the file, the court was uncertain how to proceed. Writing in March, Judge Bent said it was unclear in the case what the “appropriate balance is between disclosure and confidentiality.”
There were no rulings in last week’s hearing to clear up the uncertainty. What did emerge were instructions for the parties to sit down and have a face-to-face meeting on what issues still stand in the way of granting Mr. St. Francis a guardian of his own choosing.
The judge said that within two weeks he wants either a stipulation that would settle the matter or an outline of the issues the parties want the court to decide. Among those issues is the matter of public access, and what information in Mr. St. Francis’ case file may be sensitive enough to be redacted before making it public.
The paper wants access to any files concerning the transfer of guardianship and any conditions imposed on the proposed transfer.
Also present at the hearing last week was Janet Reed, the proposed private guardian for Mr. St. Francis; her attorney, Dan Keenan; and Connie Daigle, the guardian ad litem for Mr. St. Francis in any legal proceeding. Also present was Mr. St. Francis himself.
by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle August 12, 2009
After struggling for years to gain some measure of control over his own life, George St. Francis is out of the Safe Choices program. He is also out from under the control of the Office of the Public Guardian, which put him in Safe Choices and kept him there. He has a private guardian instead, a woman who has worked quietly for years to release young men from Safe Choices.
And, to the consternation of some concerned with his care, Mr. St. Francis is a married man.
On August 3, the day she was appointed his guardian, Janet Reed approved Mr. St. Francis’s application for a license to marry Kathy McCammon, and the two were married at the Reed farm in Craftsbury. Francis Whitcomb, a justice of the peace from Albany, performed the ceremony before a group of about a dozen friends and supporters.
Mr. St. Francis still does not enjoy the full rights of an adult citizen, though he is in his thirties.
He lost those rights at 18, the age most people acquire them, when he was “adjudicated to be mentally retarded” in Chittenden Family Court in 1996.
That put him under the control of a state-appointed guardian, who in turn enrolled him in the Safe Choices Program, which is designed to care for and control mentally disabled men who are considered sexually dangerous.
Most of his time in Safe Choices was spent at Lowell House, an isolated farmhouse he shared with Safe Choices staff and a handful of other “consumers” of the program.
Mr. St. Francis’ efforts to get out of Safe Choices and out from under the control of his state guardian date back to 2003. They consistently met with failure until he was able to find a lawyer of his own choosing who supported him in court.
But in ending the state guardianship last month in Orleans Family Court, Judge Robert Bent did not leave Mr. St. Francis or his new guardian, Ms. Reed, free from the oversight of mental health professionals.
Judge Bent ordered Mr. St. Francis to continue to receive developmental services, “which may include 24-hour supervision,” as determined appropriate by a “designated agency” that is not named in the order.
If Ms. Reed seeks to deviate from the agency’s treatment plan, and can’t reach agreement with the agency, the judge wrote, she “must seek prior Court approval for such deviation.”
That agency, which she did not name, has already told her that permitting Mr. St. Francis to marry Ms. McCammon constitutes a violation of Judge Bent’s order, Ms. Reed said in an interview Tuesday.
She said the agency suspended Mr. St. Francis’ “Medicaid waiver,” which covered developmental services costing about $200,000 a year, but then agreed to delay that suspension while the two sides searched for a solution.
Since she met him exactly a year ago, Ms. Reed said, Mr. St. Francis has consistently asked her for two things: that she become his guardian, and that he be permitted to marry Ms. McCammon.
“ ‘I have a life and I want to get it back, they took my life away,’ was his plea to me,” Ms. Reed said.
Whether that marriage comes as a happy ending to a tale of starcrossed lovers, or the culmination of a caregiver’s abuse of a vulnerable adult that began in 2003, depends on which side of the argument you talk to.
Ms. McCammon operated Nightingale Respite Services for developmentally disabled adults at her farm in Wolcott when Mr. St. Francis was sent there in the summer of 2003.
That fall, an investigator for Adult Protective Services looked into an allegation that the two had sexual intercourse. He concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to susbstantiate in this case.”
Mr. St. Francis was moved to Lowell House, and Ms. McCammon was blacklisted as a care provider.
The same allegation from 2003 was brought into criminal court three years later by the office of the Vermont Attorney General, who charged Ms. McCammon with abuse of a vulnerable adult.
Her attorney, Susan Davis, argued that the charge should be dismissed for a number of reasons, including “in the interests of justice.”
The truth of the matter, she said, is “that the purported victim has fallen in love with the Defendant…”
“While the State asserts it is acting in his best interest, the purported victim is essentially a prisoner of a system which does not recognize his right to love whomever he chooses,” Ms. Davis said.
The Attorney General dismissed the charges in February 2006, without explanation.
While she acknowledged her romantic attachment to Mr. St. Francis in an interview last year, Ms. McCammon denied that she’d ever had sex with him.
Mr. St. Francis has a constitutional right to marry the person he chooses, Ms. Reed said in a recent interview, and that is what she has permitted him to do.
Referring to a pamphlet given to her by the Probate Court, which took the case over from Judge Bent after the state guardianship ended, Ms. Reed said “I have been following the guidelines of the flyer: be respectful, help him achieve his hopes and dreams, let him become more independent.”
Though she doesn’t name the agency that took over Mr. St. Francis’ therapy from Safe Choices, Ms. Reed said she had suggested it to the court.
“I thought it would be different,” she said, “but what we saw was exactly what was done in Safe Choices.”
The agency placed Mr. St. Francis with a home care provider in Northfield. After they were married, however, Mr. St. Francis moved into Ms. McCammon’s home in Wolcott.
by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle August 26, 2009
ALBANY — The only odd thing about sitting opposite George St. Francis at a kitchen table was how long it had taken to get there.
The Chronicle has been writing about Mr. St. Francis since October 2008 — a long series of articles detailing his efforts to get out of a place called Lowell House and out of a program called Safe Choices.
The paper did so without exchanging so much as a word with the chief subject of the articles, despite the sensitivity of his situation.
He had not only been found to be mentally retarded, as a matter of law, but had also been treated as a sexually dangerous man who needed to be kept under 24-hour, arm’s length supervision.
As soon as the Chronicle started looking for Mr. St. Francis it was contacted by Gail Falk, who heads the Office of the Public Guardian, and so held ultimate control over his life. She was concerned, and said it would not be up to Mr. St. Francis, but to his state-appointed guardian, to determine whether speaking to the press was in his best interest.
The Chronicle agreed not to approach Mr. St. Francis until Ms. Falk resolved that issue, and got back to us. She never did.
But by Tuesday, August 28, Mr. St. Francis had a private guardian of his own choosing, Janet Reed. She decided her new ward should talk to the press if he chose to.
He did, and we gathered in the kitchen of Janet and Allen Reed’s farmhouse: two reporters, Mr. St. Francis, his new bride, Kathy McCammon, her friend and associate, Dayton Lanphere, and Ms. Reed.
The meeting was an opportunity to clear up some details that, without a chance to talk to Mr. St. Francis, had perplexed the reporters for months.
On the day the first story in the series was going to press Mr. St. Francis appeared in Orleans District Court in Newport to plead innocent to a charge of disorderly conduct.
In rough outline, the charge looked serious enough. According to a State Police affidavit, Mr. St. Francis had walked into Lowell House carrying a steak knife, and the staff member who confronted him felt threatened.
In court on September 30 Mr. St. Francis pled innocent to the misdemeanor charge and Judge Walter Morris ordered what, in the shorthand of court records, appears as a “competency/sanity eval.”
That’s not surprising in the circumstances. Safe Choices was created by the nonprofit community mental health agency now called Northeast Kingdom Human Services to deal with people who had been charged with a crime but, because they lacked the ability to understand the legal process, could not constitutionally be tried and convicted.
Mr. St. Francis was not one of those. As far as the Chronicle has been able to discover, he was sent to Safe Choices by his private guardian, Diane Morris, because his sexual behavior was considered problematic, not because he had been charged with a sex crime.
At his next court appearance, Ernie Zisselsberger had been added to the cast of people looking out for Mr. St. Francis’ interest. He had been appointed his guardian ad litem, a person more typically assigned to look after the legal interests of a child who has been brought into the court system. A large, gruff man and longtime law officer, Mr. Zisselsberger didn’t hesitate to comment on the criminal case against Mr. St. Francis.
“The whole case is ridiculous,” he said. “Somebody overreached. He didn’t do anything.
“I’m going from the affidavit from the State Trooper,” Mr. Zisselsberger continued. “He never even said boo to the guy. He had a steak knife in his hand. That was it.”
According to the affidavit in the case, the staff member, Michael Ghosn, “took the knife from St. Francis and St. Francis then left the house, returning to his own cottage.”
What followed in court that day was difficult to follow, because so much of it was shrouded in secrecy.
A specialist had studied Mr. St. Francis and prepared a report on his competence to stand trial. Mr. St. Francis confirmed last week that the report concluded he was not competent.
That finding would have protected Mr. St. Francis from the consequences of a criminal conviction.
But his public defender, Jill Jourdan, asked for an “independent evaluation” of her client. Again according to Mr. St. Francis, that ultimately found he was competent to stand trial.
Sometime after that, the state dismissed the charge.
“I wasn’t threatening anybody with it,” Mr. St. Francis said last week of the knife. “They left the steak knife at my cottage. I was trying to bring it back to the staff. They accused me of threatening somebody.”
To Ms. Reed and Ms. McCammon, the case illustrates a practice that Safe Choices’ critics focus on, and the program itself denies: using the police and the threat of jail to keep the “consumers” in line and in the program.
Ms. Reed has worked closely with three men who have managed to get out of Safe Choices. All of them, she said last week, reported threats that if they tried to get out of the program they would go to jail.
One of them, who we have only identified by the pseudonym “Wendell” in this series, volunteered to the Chronicle that he was criminally charged after an altercation with a staff member in 2006. He pled guilty to the charge and was given a one-year deferred sentence, which meant that his conviction disappeared from court records after he completed his probation.
A requirement of that probation, Wendell said, was that he be supervised by Safe Choices. Two weeks after his probation was up, Wendell left the program. His most memorable comment on Safe Choices: “I felt like I wasted five years for nothing.”
“The state can’t have it both ways,” Ms. McCammon said last week at the kitchen table.
If Safe Choices was created to control men who can’t be tried like “normal” people, she implied, by what logic does it use the police and courts as a method of control?
A short, beefy guy with black curly hair on a big head, Mr. St. Francis was casually dressed in shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and sandals for last week’s meeting.
But it was not a casual meeting, and every question was greeted with a pause before Mr. St. Francis answered, sometimes with a prompt from one of the two women at the table.
If he is uneasy, he has reasons.
One of those reasons remains entirely mysterious. On Monday, August 3, less than a week after he got out from under the control of a state guardian, became a ward of Ms. Reed and married Ms. McCammon, the couple was disturbed by a midnight visitor at Ms. McCammon’s farm in Wolcott.
(Ms. McCammon corrected that reference to her home. “It’s his farm,” she said with a nod to her husband, “and Dayton’s farm and my farm.”)
Ms. McCammon banged her fist on the table to mimic the sound she heard at about midnight, the sound of someone banging on her door.
She went into the bedroom where Mr. Lanphere was sleeping, and through his window could see a car parked on the road below the driveway. It cast a bright spotlight into the upstairs window.
“I could hear someone walking through the grass, banging on the aluminum door so loudly. George and Dayton both heard him shout ‘Open the effing door!’”
Mr. St. Francis said he later counted 20 dents on the aluminum storm door, apparently left by a hammer.
The Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department sent a deputy to take a report, but its investigation hasn’t turned up anything.
Asked by the deputy if they had any enemies, Ms. McCammon said, she named Northeast Kingdom Human Services, and the officer said he would put that in his report.
It was on that Monday morning that Ms. Reed informed Sterling Area Services, which had agreed to take over Mr. St. Francis’ treatment from Northeast Kingdom Human Services, that he had married Ms. McCammon and moved in with her.
Ms. Reed, Ms. McCammon and Mr. St. Francis clearly find that timing suggestive, but offer no other evidence to link the midnight visit with either mental health agency.
The other reason for his uneasiness is more straightforward. When he released Mr. St. Francis from state guardianship, Family Court Judge Robert Bent was careful to indicate that Mr. St. Francis still needed supervision — perhaps 24-hour supervision — and that it should be provided by an unnamed mental health agency which has since been identified as Sterling. If the agency and Ms. Reed could not agree on a treatment program, the judge wrote, the matter should come back to his court to be resolved.
At a meeting on Monday, August 17, Sterling told Ms. Reed that, in its judgment, she had rejected its treatment program and it was no longer responsible for Mr. St. Francis’ treatment.
Ms. Reed has a copy of a letter sent to Judge Bent by 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.
It says that his order in Mr. St. Francis’ case “may be being violated.”
It continues: “DAIL has information from Sterling that as of August 3, 2009, and at the request of Ms. Reed, Mr. St. Francis is no longer receiving services.”
(Sterling Area Services, Inc., is the Morrisville-based nonprofit agency that, until Ms. Myka’s letter, had not been named in the official record.)
Ever since Probate Judge Monette signed a protective order last fall that ordered the state and Safe Choices to leave Mr. St. Francis alone to pursue a new guardian, Ms. Myka has worked to keep him and Ms. McCammon apart.
In a letter to Judge Monette she wrote that while Mr. St. Francis and Ms. Reed could talk on the phone, she would not permit them to meet face to face, despite the judge’s clear instruction to the contrary.
“The State has reason to believe that the intentions of the proposed guardian are not pure,” Ms. Myka wrote. “The proposed private guardian is known by Department employees to be a close associate of Kathy McCammon. As you may recall from the 2005 legal proceeding regarding Mr. St. Francis, Ms. McCammon was found to have had an inappropriate sexual relationship with Mr. St. Francis while she was his respite provider. She was apparently outside the courthouse yesterday after your hearing.”
In fact, an investigation by the state’s agency of Adult Protective Services into the charge of “inappropriate sexual relationship” did not confirm it. The attorney general’s office charged Ms. McCammon with abuse of a vulnerable adult in 2005 on the basis of the same allegation, but dropped the charge without explanation.
Both Mr. St. Francis and Ms. McCammon deny they had sex before they were married, although they clearly have had a romantic attachment that dates back to 2003.
Ms. McCammon volunteered last week that, since he reached her by telephone on December 9, 2007, “George and I have been talking secretly, by phone.” Until May this year, when Mr. St. Francis was moved from Lowell House to a home care provider in Orleans where he could not use the telephone, Ms. McCammon said, “We’ve talked every day, practically, for a year and a half.”
Early this year, in the Family Court case that ended the state guardianship, Ms. Myka reportedly sought a condition that would keep the two apart.
Mr. St. Francis confirmed this last week. “They said I could have my freedom as long as I didn’t have her,” he said. “I said I ain’t going to give her up.”
Another condition sought by Ms. Myka, but rejected by the court and Mr. St. Francis, was that he agree not to sue the state for its treatment of him. Asked if he intends to seek civil damages from the state, Mr. St. Francis said he isn’t sure.
Asked if he wants services from a helping agency, Mr. St. Francis said a firm “No.”
“I just want my life,” he said. “I want my freedom.”
by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle August 9, 2009
NEWPORT — George St. Francis was back in Orleans Family Court on September 3 to hear Judge Robert Bent warn his new, private guardian that she might be found in contempt of court.
She might also be replaced, Judge Bent warned Janet Reed of Albany, unless she complies with a court order that was designed to govern Mr. St. Francis’ continued treatment.
For Mr. St. Francis, who needs a guardian because of a 1996 Family Court finding that he was mentally retarded, Thursday’s status conference raised the possibility that he will once again find himself under the control of the state and its public guardian program. His state-appointed public guardian placed Mr. St. Francis in a program called Safe Choices, which in turn put him in a residence called Lowell House.
He spent years trying to get out, and finally succeeded in late July.
Thursday’s status conference was an indication that his freedom might not last long.
The conference was unusual in that Judge Bent brought Probate Judge John Monette into the courtroom to sit beside him on the bench.
He did so, Judge Bent said, because “this case is in transition, and it makes the most sense that both of us be here.”
The transition was necessary because it was up to the Family Court to rule on Mr. St. Francis’ request to be relieved of his public guardian. But private guardians like Ms. Reed are appointed and controlled by the Probate Court.
Before much was said Thursday, Judge Bent noted that Judge Monette had never had access to a professionally prepared “risk assessment” of Mr. St. Francis. Like other “consumers” of the Safe Choices program, Mr. St. Francis had been placed there because he was viewed as a potential sex offender.
With the permission of Ms. Reed’s new attorney, Gertrude Miller, Judge Monette retired with Judge Bent to read the risk assessment, which is sealed from public scrutiny.
Judge Bent said he called the status conference after receiving a letter from 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.
The letter notified the court that, contrary to the order that ended Mr. St. Francis’ public guardianship, he was not receiving services from Sterling Area Services in Morrisville.
Ms. Miller told the judges that was none of Ms. Reed’s doing.
“They have unilaterally terminated services,” she said of Sterling. “She has taken strong steps to keep those services in place.”
“We’re not taking a position today,” Ms. Myka said on behalf of her client, DAIL. “But we disagree with the characterization Ms. Miller has made.”
Ms. Myka said that Sterling gave up on Mr. St. Francis’ treatment after Ms. Reed notified the agency on a Monday that he had gotten married over the weekend, and after he failed to show up for a therapy appointment.
“It is surprising, to say the least, that they blame Sterling for what has happened,” Ms. Myka said.
The court has a very specific concern for the public safety in this case, Judge Bent said. “The court’s order was written with that intent. The court believed that supervision couldn’t be exercised without professional assistance.”
Judge Bent wondered if the court could replace Ms. Reed as guardian with someone from DAIL.
“Mr. St. Francis is on a new path,” Ms. Myka replied. “Pushing him back at this point would be really really hard.”
Judge Bent said he would schedule a “show cause” hearing to consider whether sanctions were appropriate.
Those, he said, might include a finding of contempt, removal of Ms. Reed as guardian, or modification or expansion of the court orders regarding Mr. St. Francis’ treatment.
The court, he emphasized, needs to determine “whether the guardian understands her role. She is in charge of Mr. St. Francis.”
Ms. Miller asked the court for some time to prepare for the hearing. It might take a few weeks to get Mr. St. Francis’ records from the state, she said.
Ms. Myka wondered if the state should release those records. The problem, she said, was Mr. St. Francis’ new wife, Kathy McCammon.
“Ms. Miller represented Ms. McCammon in 2003-2004,” she noted, during an earlier attempt by Mr. St. Francis to rid himself of his public guardian.
“I also believe she used to work for Ms. Miller,” Ms. Myka continued, “and now I’m thinking, we’re giving records to Ms. Reed, who will of course give them to her attorney, who is Trudy (Ms. Miller), who represented Mr. St. Francis’ abuser.”
“And his wife now,” Judge Bent cut in.
“I’m concerned about the records being released to Ms. McCammon,” Ms. Myka persisted.
Judge Bent said that Ms. Myka’s charge that Ms. McCammon sexually abused Mr. St. Francis in 2003 was “an opinion of a state agency” and “not an adjudicated fact.”
The charge that the two had sex in 2003 has been denied by both Ms. McCammon and Mr. St. Francis.
Tim Yarrow, Mr. St. Francis’ attorney during his legal struggle to replace the public guardian with Ms. Reed, was permitted to withdraw from the case.
The request, Judge Bent noted, was one “we grant as a matter of course when a case is over — and there was a point in time when we thought this case was over.”
by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle May 19, 2010