copyright the Chronicle November 26, 2008
Last week, in one of a series of articles this newspaper has published about the Safe Choices program, Paul Lefebvre wrote of a lawyer’s struggles to maintain contact with her client.
Brain damaged in a childhood accident, the client was confined in a remote trailer under conditions that, as described by his father, are worse than those in our state prisons.
The lawyer charges that, in defiance of a judge’s order that her client be given access to his attorney, state employees and agents refused to let her speak to him until he could be coerced into signing a statement that he no longer desired her services.
Those charges have yet to be proven. The complaint is to be the subject of a hearing in Caledonia Family Court.
On November 10, an attorney representing the state commissioner of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living filed a motion asking that the hearing be closed to the public, and the attendant records be put under seal.
On November 19, Judge Howard VanBenthuysen issued the following handwritten entry denying that motion:
“Court proceedings are presumptively public in Vermont. Neither the participants nor the public would be served by draping these proceedings with the cloak of secrecy.”
That entry comes as a breath of fresh air in a pretty dark closet. Again and again we have been told we are snooping into matters that are nobody’s business. The state and its agents who run the Safe Choices program, we are assured, are doing their very best for a small group of men with two very large strikes against them:
They suffer a mental disability, and they have been charged with, or suspected of, sexual offenses.
We undertook our series on Safe Choices because of troubling reports that these men have not been well treated; that their rights have not been respected.
The windows into the lives of these men are small, and inclined to slam shut when anyone approaches.
In trying to peer though these windows, we rely on a couple of principles: that Americans cannot be denied their constitutional rights without a court hearing; and that they are entitled to have such hearings conducted in the full light of public scrutiny.
Judge VanBenthuysen’s ruling, only a few simple words in his own hand, is a vital confirmation of those principles. — C.B.