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.
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