Safe Choices 24 – Cialis as therapy?

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle January 19, 2011
Smokey (his choice of a false name) was living quietly in the countryside under the supervision of a single woman when the program that controlled his life, Safe Choices, brought a friend over to visit in 2009.

The two men spent the night in a tent, and there was an opportunity for sexual activity.  That, it seems, was the point.

Smokey, at the time, was an angry and unwilling “consumer” of the Safe Choices program, which was established to treat — and protect the public from — serious sex offenders who are so profoundly mentally disabled that they can’t be tried for their crime.

Smokey got into some trouble as an adolescent, but has never been charged with a sexual offense as an adult.

The friend who was delivered to his home is 31 years older than Smokey and has been convicted of six counts of sexual assault and lewd and lascivious conduct with a child.

He lives under close supervision at Lowell House, one of Safe Choices’ residential facilities, as a condition of his probation.  He can be found on Vermont’s sex offender registry.  (The Chronicle promised Smokey we would not use his friend’s real name, so we’ll call him Joe.)

Establishing a sexual relationship between Smokey and Joe was, as far as it is possible to tell, part of their treatment program in Safe Choices.

It also seems that the program, in its effort to deal with men who, it insists, are sexually dangerous, is concerned for their sexual potency.

In 2006, when Smokey encountered difficulty getting an erection, Safe Choices sent him to a doctor where he was given Cialis, the drug that is heavily advertised on television as a cure for erectile dysfunction.

When Smokey discarded the drug because it made him feel dizzy and nauseous, Kathy Aiken, the coordinator of Safe Choices, wrote a letter to his doctor asking that he be prescribed some more.

Smokey outlined this story in an interview in May 2010, shortly after Safe Choices, surprisingly, let him walk away from the program.

He is an engaging man, friendly, extremely talkative, and remarkably well spoken for one whose mental capacity confined him to a decade in a program that angered, embarrassed and confused him.

But he seemed inclined to tell an interviewer what he wanted to hear, and his story was so bizarre that this newspaper set it aside.

Smokey has since obtained copies of his extensive record from Safe Choices, and on Monday he made part of that record available to the Chronicle.  The documents confirm his story.

Smokey said Monday that he is not a homosexual.  He’d like to be in a relationship with a woman, he said, “because I always talked about having a family someday.”

At several points in his records, Smokey talks about particular women he would like to date, and about his sadness when one, who he’d invited to his birthday party, failed to appear.

Did he feel that the Safe Choices staff was pushing him into a sexual relationship with Joe?

“Yeah,” he replied.  “Joe liked me as a best friend.  They found out Joe liked me as more than just a friend.

“Me and Joe did end up together.  It was in a tent, and we didn’t do anything.  We were camping out, just two normal friends.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, Smokey was clearly not believed at Safe Choices.  He continued:

“They said ‘We believe you had intercourse.’  I said no, he slept on the mattress and I slept on the ground.”

The records show that Smokey was particularly concerned that his relationship with Joe not become a topic at the weekly group therapy meetings.  Conducted by Saul Schoenberg, a licenced psychologist who heads Resolutions Program, Inc., the sessions form the core of Safe Choices’ treatment program.  According to other former participants in the program, they focus on the clients’ sexuality, on their sexual fantasies — acceptable and aberrant — and on what outlets they are able to find, like masturbation.

In July 2009, staff member John Ullrich wrote in his client notes, Smokey “was anxious and nervous that it was going to be brought to Group what happened between him and the client during a visit.  I assured Smokey that Saul stated that this will not be brought up in group and that he will take care of this matter individually in private sessions.”

That same month, Mr. Schoenberg reported on a session he held with Smokey and Joe.  The handwritten notes are hard to read, but leave an impression of something like a couple’s therapy session.  There is talk of consenting to and initiating sex, of sexual control and feelings of security.

In January 2010, psychiatrist Craig Van Tuinen wrote in his notes on a meeting with Smokey that Joe, “another client, stayed overnight at the house which brought up a lot of concerns however they apparently worked out an agreement and Smokey was very clear about no physical contact.”

Smokey was clearly not fond of the group therapy sessions.  An unsigned “psychiatric appointment information sheet” dated December 2, 2008, reports:

Smokey “has blown up at group and was yelling threats outside the office that were in the nature of reporting the program to lawyers.  Kathy has sent a e-mail to Smokey’s guardian pertaining that he needs to find a different program for Smokey.  Cause he is now scaring the other clients in the group as well with his threatening outburst towards Saul and the program.”

Asked on Monday if he has a temper, Smokey replied, “Yes, sometimes it gets pretty escalated, depending on the situation.  It’s mostly yelling.  At Safe Choices I have punched the refrigerators and the freezers and the walls, but nothing physical to any person or human being.”

Safe Choices didn’t find a different program for Smokey.  But the program seems to have simply let him walk away in the spring of 2010.  He lives alone in an apartment, is looking for a job, and said he has an appointment to get his driver’s license.

Although he said he finds it hard to sit still, Smokey said he has stopped taking any of the long list of psychiatric drugs that were prescribed for him at Safe Choices.

In a remarkable recital, he rattles through the long list of drugs, citing their daily doses and their purpose — chiefly anti-anxiety.

“I have been on these drugs for years and years,” he explains, “and I know them by heart.  I think, altogether, I was taking seven medications.

“They didn’t usually force you,” he said of his drug regimen.  “They would manipulate you.  ‘You take your pills and we’ll talk about rewarding you for making the right choice.’

“Safe Choices sounds like wrong choices to me,” he added.

Why would the program have pushed him together with Joe?

“They wanted to manipulate the system,” he said Monday, “to keep him on probation longer.”

Asked the same question last May, Smokey had a slightly different answer.

“To pin things on us,” he said.  “To experiment.”

If his state-appointed guardian hadn’t put him in the Safe Choices program at 18, Smokey was asked Monday, what would his life have been like?

“I probably would have had a normal life,” he replied.  “A family; a decent job.”

And why, finally, was he sharing these embarrassing moments of his life with a newspaper?

“To get justice on how I feel and how I was treated — and others in the program, too.”

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