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.”