by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle October 22, 2008
NEWPORT — A 24-year-old farmhand we are calling Wendell walked out of Orleans County Probate Court Thursday afternoon, October 16, with something he had never had before: his freedom.
Wendell has been under the control of guardians since he turned 18, the age at which children are emancipated and gain the right to run their own lives, sign contracts, manage their own money, decide where they choose to live.
Wendell was put under the guardianship of his step-father because he was deemed to be developmentally disabled — of less than normal and adequate intelligence.
And his guardian, worried about Wendell’s sexual conduct, put him into the Safe Choices program that is run for the state of Vermont by Northeast Kingdom Human Services, a Newport-based community mental health agency.
Wendell told the Chronicle he spent five years in Safe Choices, some of them in a series of a dozen private homes, and some in an isolated residence at the end of a dead-end road in Lowell.
In Safe Choices Wendell mixed with 16 or 17 other “consumers,” some of whom had been charged with serious sexual offenses. Those clients couldn’t be tried because of a constitutional protection that insists that, to be tried and convicted in America’s criminal courts, the defendant has to be able to understand what’s happening, and to participate in his own defense.
Rather than turn such offenders loose, Safe Choices keeps them under “arm’s length” supervision around the clock.
Wendell doesn’t fit that category. He was never formally accused of a sex crime. And far from being incompetent to stand trial, he told the Chronicle that he had been charged and convicted of a misdemeanor after a scuffle with one of his keepers at Lowell House. The sentence was deferred, so no record of his conviction remains. And the terms of his probation were that he return to Lowell House for a year and obey the rules.
In Safe Choices, Wendell was an ungrateful recipient of an astounding amount of public expense. Records indicate that one year at Lowell House cost taxpayers $187,766. That’s more than four times the cost of keeping a Vermonter in prison for a year.
Wendell was unhappy in the program, suspects that he was overdosed with psychiatric drugs which he has since stopped taking, falsely accused of sexual perversions, and denied both privacy and the freedom to associate with ordinary people in ordinary ways.
“I feel like I wasted five years for nothing,” he said in an interview.
Wendell was able to leave Safe Choices about a year ago, when his new guardian, his mother, decided he should do so.
He has been living in Craftsbury, and working part-time at the dairy farm of his aunt and uncle.
In August this year, as she does every year, Probate Court Clerk Lorraine Gray sent brief reporting forms out to the people it has appointed private guardians, and to the people they watch over.
Wendell’s mother returned her form, saying things were going well and yes, the guardianship should continue.
Wendell’s, however, came back with a request that the guardianship end.
The court responded by setting up an independent evaluation of Wendell by a social worker, and setting a date for a hearing.
He appeared Thursday before Probate Judge John Monette. With him was his attorney, Gertrude Miller.
With a glance at the reporter in the back of the small hearing room on the main floor of the county courthouse, Judge Monette noted that it was Wendell’s right to have the hearing “fully open” or to exclude anyone who wasn’t a necessary part of the proceedings.
Ms. Miller said her client had no objection to anyone being in the courtroom. (Before the hearing, the reporter had discussed the matter with Wendell and agreed to continue to protect his privacy by not using his real name.)
Missing from the hearing, Judge Monette noted, was Wendell’s mother and guardian.
In the form she’d returned to the court, the judge said, Wendell’s mother had said the guardianship should continue — that she believes Wendell “did require some level of assistance.”
“We agree with the guardianship evaluation,” Ms. Miller said. “It recommends that the guardianship be ended.”
The evaluation also suggested that, if it agreed, the court should “check in” with Wendell in six months “to see how things are going,” Judge Monette said.
But, he added of the guardianship, “there either is one or there isn’t. We can tailor or reduce the scope of his mother’s power. But if we grant this motion, we can’t check in in six months.”
Wendell swore to tell the truth and testified about his living situation.
“I am on disability,” he said. “I work part-time for my uncle. I’ve got my own apartment. I’ve got my license and a car. I’m capable of driving to work every day.”
“Did you drive up here today?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” said Wendell.
“My uncle’s wife has a place up in East Craftsbury where I’m staying right now,” Wendell continued. “It’s kind of like a camp.”
“Do you have any cases in other courts?” the judge demanded.
“Not that I know of,” Wendell said.
“How do you handle medical decisions? Do you have any medical issues?”
“No,” said Wendell.
There followed a discussion of Wendell’s finances. He said he gets a small Social Security check that reflects his disability, and another because his father died when he was 16. Those must be co-signed by his mother, who lives on the “other side of the mountain” in Franklin County.
“I go up that way at the beginning of the month,” Wendell said, “and we cash them together, so I can pay for my insurance and groceries.”
Wendell said his mother and guardian doesn’t make decisions for him. “She just backs me up,” he said. “I made the decision this year that I wanted to live on this side of the mountain. I wasn’t doing anything, and I was starting to gain weight. Now I’m losing it again.”
“”It sounds as though you have started the transition already,” Judge Monette said. “It is not as though it will be a complete and sudden change in your circumstances.
“I believe the court is able to accept the evaluation’s recommendation,” the judge concluded. “We’ll be closing the file.”
However, Judge Monette added, “that doesn’t mean the door is closed. Down the road, you can decide you want a voluntary guardian, or your family could petition this court in the future.
“But,” he added, “we are closing the door in that we’re not coming back in six months.”
“I’m really happy and what I’ve done, and what you guys did,” Wendell said.
Wendell smiled and walked out of the courthouse, his own man.