copyright the Chronicle October 22, 2008
A friendly, soft-spoken 24-year-old farmhand goes into Probate Court and, after a brief hearing, wins his emancipation from his mother’s guardianship. He’s been living and working away from home for more than a year, and Probate Judge John Monette was able to satisfy himself that ending the guardianship wouldn’t make much difference in “Wendell’s” life.
So what’s the big deal? An old mistake, perhaps, finally corrected. Or maybe Wendell has improved over the past six years. Maybe he got smarter, since that was the problem that put him under an involuntary guardianship in the first place.
Maybe the five years he spent in the Safe Choices program made him smarter. In that case, Safe Choices should be holding him up as a successful graduate.
And maybe we should rejoice, as taxpayers, that the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars Safe Choices spent on Wendell were well spent.
But Safe Choices doesn’t seem to see it that way. And Wendell certainly doesn’t see it that way. He thinks Safe Choices wasted five years of his young life — five years of virtual confinement in “arm’s length” supervision, isolation at the remote Lowell House, ridicule of his supposed sexual preferences and threats that if he tried to leave he would go to jail. That’s how Wendell saw it.
And if we, as taxpayers, think the money was well spent, maybe we could use a guardian ourselves.
There is clearly a need for a program like Safe Choices to keep careful track of men who commit serious sex offenses and lack the mental capacity to stand trial.
Wendell isn’t one of those, and that’s where the program requires close public scrutiny — scrutiny that it has avoided for years behind a pious concern for the privacy of its “consumers.”
Privacy is a real concern, in both legal and humanitarian terms. But what about a Safe Choices client like George St. Francis, who has made numerous attempts to get out of the program, and says he “wants the public to hear about his terrible experiences in the Safe Choices program”?
What do we do when we are admonished by the head of the Office of the State Guardian for trying to get in touch with George? We’re warned that he’s not competent to decide whether it’s in his interest to talk to the press. We’re assured that the state guardian will talk to George about it and get back to us. And we never hear from them again.
What does a lawyer do who tries to represent Mr. St. Francis in court, and is told by a lawyer for the state that George isn’t free to seek legal advice, that only his state guardian can do that?
The deck is stacked against the men who want to get out of Safe Choices. And there’s something a bit obscene about using their right to privacy as a shield for such a potent and expensive program to hide behind. — C.B.