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.”