by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle May 4, 2011
Tracy Gilman is fighting the system, and she’s losing.
Ms. Gilman was drawn into battle on behalf of her son, 24-year-old Bill Bennett.
Because of limited mental capacity and a criminal allegation of lewd and lascivious conduct, Mr. Bennett has spent the last five years in the custody of the commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL).
The commissioners have confined him to a program called Safe Choices run by the local mental health agency, Northeast Kingdom Human Services.
But Ms. Gilman is still his legal guardian, and has continued to play an active role in her son’s life — and his therapy. That put her at odds with the people who have legal authority over her son, and the conflict has turned a diminutive woman into a warrior.
“A cause has been cast upon me,” she wrote recently on her new blog site, Safe Choices Abuse Victims. “I’m not an activist by nature but what I am is determined to bring about a change in the corrupt system of Human Services that portends to protect the public, while it loots our taxpayers and wields its power mercilessly over a disadvantaged population without the financial or intellectual resources to fight back. Bullying, brainwashing and medicating them into submission. I am a witness, and I will not be deterred by bullying.”
That’s not the language that got Ms. Gilman into trouble. In an earlier blog — one that can’t now be found on her site — she opened by writing that “Even though my son Bill isn’t a sex offender, he’s been court ordered to take part in the Safe Choices sex offender program.”
Ms. Gilman quickly learned that someone had been monitoring her blogs very closely. And she had just said the magic words.
A week ago she got an e-mail from Vermont’s new DAIL commissioner, Susan Wehry.
After quoting the opening lines of her blog back to her, Dr. Wehry wrote “I am not confident that you will be able to carry out your supervisory duties of protecting community safety given that you do not believe William committed these sexual offenses.
“Consequently,” the commissioner continued, “I am terminating unsupervised visits between you and William until you and William’s treatment team can meet to discuss this further.”
Ms. Gilman said in an interview she does not know whether her son committed the crime he was charged with because he was never tried or convicted. He was deemed to be mentally incapable of standing trial and put in the commissioner’s custody under Act 248, Vermont’s civil commitment law.
As for his guilt, she said, “I’m saying that we wouldn’t really know that without a trial, without all of the facts surrounding the incident that he was charged with.”
Far from denying that her son has problems with his sexuality, Ms. Gilman said she sought professional help for him, and enrolled him in Safe Choices before the incident that led to the charges against him.
As for the public’s safety, Ms. Gilman insists that she has followed all the rules imposed on her under Act 248.
“He’s always at arm’s length,” she said. “He’s always with me. I don’t leave him unsupervised.”
For Ms. Gilman — and, she says, for her son — the results of the commissioner’s ruling have already been devastating.
Bill had been spending three days a week, Saturday through Monday, with his mother, shopping, visiting with relatives, and undergoing sessions of physical exercise and psychological counseling Ms. Gilman had arranged for him.
Instead of having him at home on Saturday, Ms. Gilman arranged to take a ride with her son along the Newport bicycle trail. She was told that two Safe Choices workers would accompany them.
“They met me there,” she said. “Two big guys at the Vista store parking lot.”
“I said, ‘Who are you guys?’ I didn’t recognize either one.”
She said the men gave her first names, but refused to give their last names. When she asked who they worked for, she said, it was only after an argument that they conceded that they worked for Northeast Kingdom Human Services.
They told her they’d been ordered not to let Bill ride the new bike Ms. Gilman had brought with her.
After another argument, Bill was allowed to take a brief ride around the parking lot. Then the two men followed mother and son along the bike path, insisting that Bill push his bike.
“They stalked us,” Ms. Gilman said. “This is really affecting Bill. He’s nervous, looking over his shoulder all the time. He has developed severe facial twitches.”
“Before, you’d see a pretty happy, normal kid,” Ms. Gilman said. “Now you see these facial twitches the whole time. It’s horrible.”
On Monday, Safe Choices agreed to bring Bill to the exercise sessions Ms. Gilman has regularly scheduled at Motion 365 in St. Johnsbury.
But, Ms. Gilman said, the Safe Choices staff doesn’t permit Bill to carry the inhaler he needs to control his asthma. And when he and two minders arrived in St. Johnsbury, they didn’t have his inhaler.
“She was totally unconcerned,” Ms. Gilman said of Tammy Crowe, who she identified as Bill’s case manager.
Later that day, Ms. Gilman said, Bill missed a six o’clock appointment with his attorney, Gertrude Miller, because there was no Safe Choices staff available to take him. Before she lost access to her son, Ms. Gilman said, she would be the one to take him. She added that the staff won’t let him talk to Ms. Miller on the telephone out of their earshot.
Mr. Bennett is living at Lowell House, a residence operated by Safe Choices at the end of a back road in Lowell.
Ms. Gilman said she was going back to Lamoille County Superior Court Tuesday to seek an emergency change of placement for her son.
She views the new rules barring private visits with her son as retaliation for exercising her right to speak out against Safe Choices and DAIL.
“I think they know I have a blog up, and it really pisses them off,” she said.
“I’m sorry she feels she’s being punished,” the new DAIL commissioner, Dr. Wehry, said Tuesday.
“As the person to whom her son is committed, I have a responsibility to him and the community. All I was trying to do was create some breathing space until we can sit down and consult.
“I have not met her or Mr. Bennett,” Dr. Wehry said. “I was only alerted a week or so ago that she had begun to post some blogs that indicated she did not think he had a problem. That raised a red flag to me about the nature of her supervision.”
If people are authorized to supervise men who are under Act 248, Dr. Wehry said, “there is an expectation that they acknowledge that the person has a problem.”
Dr. Wehry emphasized that her ruling was not permanent. “It was a ‘for now’ kind of decision,” she said, adding that representatives of her department and Northeast Kingdom Human Services plan to meet with Ms. Gilman.
That could happen as soon as May 10, Ms. Gilman said.
The idea of the meeting, Dr. Wehry said, is “let’s sit down and tell us what you mean by that.”
This is far from Ms. Gilman’s first skirmish with DAIL. Earlier this year the department tried to have Caledonia Probate Court remove her as her son’s guardian, and replace her with Dr. Wehry.
The department withdrew that motion on the day the matter was to be heard.
And Bill’s attorney, Ms. Miller, is awaiting a ruling in Lamoille Superior Court on a writ of habeus corpus that would free him from the commissioner’s control on the grounds that he was improperly placed under the jurisdiction of Act 248 in 2006.
Among Ms. Miller’s arguments is that, unless a child is involved, lewd and lascivious conduct is not on the list of dangerous crimes that can trigger Act 248.