Safe Choices 19 – St. Francis wants to take over his own life

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle June 23, 2010

NEWPORT — George St. Francis wants to get out from under the control of his guardian and take over his own life.

Meanwhile, he faces a court process that could severely limit the freedoms he currently enjoys.  He could be returned to the control of a state guardian and be subjected to 24-hour arm’s length supervision, something like a prison without walls.

Which way his life will go is up to Judge Walter Morris, who had been conducting a series of Family Court hearings into his case.

A motion seeking Mr. St. Francis’ emancipation as a competent adult has been filed by his attorney, Susan Davis.

If he were to grant the motion, Judge Morris would essentially end any state or court supervision of Mr. St. Francis.

And it would leave unresolved a question that clearly worries the judge, and other state and mental health practitioners who have dealt with him:  Is he a potential sex offender, and as such a threat to public safety?

As he sat on the bench Thursday, June 17, at the latest of a long series of hearings on Mr. St. Francis, Judge Morris faced two radically different views of the man.

His lawyer and his advocates, his wife and his friends, see him as a victim of a system that exaggerated both his disability and his potential to harm others.  As a result, they said, Mr. St. Francis spent 14 years in a system that confined him, humiliated him, over-medicated him with psychiatric drugs, and kept him far away from “normal” people and relationships.

On Thursday his lawyer, Susan Davis, went a step further and maintained that her client is not mentally retarded.  It was that diagnosis, accepted by a Superior Court judge in 1996, that cost Mr. St. Francis his freedom and put him in the hands of a program that tried to help him while, at the same time, protect the public from him.

On the other hand, Judge Morris must consider a file on Mr. St. Francis that runs to 1,100 pages, and apparently contains allegations and evaluations which raise the alarming possibility that, left to his own devices, he could become a sex offender.  Although the Chronicle has been granted limited access to the Family Court proceedings, which are normally held behind closed doors, the newspaper is not privy to the documents which support this view of Mr. St. Francis.

A year ago his problems seemed close to resolution.  Judge Morris’ predecessor in the case, Judge Robert Bent, had agreed that Mr. St. Francis should be released from the control of his state guardian.  She was replaced by Janet Reed of Albany, an advocate for Mr. St. Francis and a determined foe of the program, Safe Choices, that controlled his life for years.

Run by Northeast Kingdom Human Services, the local community mental health agency, Safe Choices was created to deal with sex offenders who are so mentally handicapped that, as a constitutional matter, they cannot be tried for their crimes.

Mr. St. Francis does not fit that description.  He is one of several men who were sent to Safe Choices because a guardian or family member was worried about their sexual behavior.

And far from being too mentally disabled to stand trial, Mr. St. Francis has on at least three occasions been the subject of minor criminal charges brought by his keepers in Safe Choices.

On the day she took over as Mr. St. Francis’ guardian, in late July last year, Ms. Reed permitted him to marry Kathy McCammon, a woman who, state officials have repeatedly asserted, abused him in 2003 by sleeping with him while serving as his caregiver.  That allegation has been investigated, but never proven, and both Ms. McCammon and Mr. St. Francis deny it.

Under a carefully negotiated court order, Mr. St. Francis was to be treated by Sterling Area Services, a mental health agency based in Morrisville, and to live under the close supervision of a couple in Northfield.

When Mr. St. Francis failed to keep an appointment with a Sterling therapist and moved in with his new wife, the agency terminated its treatment.

Judge Morris ruled in May that Ms. Reed violated the court order when she permitted her ward to marry and change his residence.  Among the possible consequences for her, the judge wrote, could be a finding of contempt of court.

Among the consequences for Mr. St. Francis, he said, could be a return to state guardianship.

But in court last week a spokesman for the state resisted that possibility.

Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Myka was there to represent the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL), which oversees the state guardian system.

“It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the department to take over Mr. St. Francis,” she told Judge Morris.

Given all that’s happened between the personalities involved, she said, “I just cannot see how we can interject ourselves in this… in a way that would be productive.”

Nor did Sterling Services show any appetite to resume treatment of Mr. St. Francis.  “Sterling doesn’t believe it can get involved at this time,” said its attorney, Robert Halpert.

The private guardianship has failed, Judge Morris said in obvious frustration.  “The question is, what are we going to do?”

If he ordered another risk assessment of Mr. St. Francis, the judge asked, “can the department be of any assistance?””

“Certainly, the department could arrange for another assessment,” Ms. Myka replied.

Mr. St. Francis’ attorney, Ms. Davis, tried to shape the nature of any further evaluation of Mr. St. Francis.

“It’s not the evaluation per se we’re concerned about,” she told the judge.  “The prior evaluation was based on tons and tons of records.  Many were exaggerated or false.”

A new evaluation should be done without reference to those records, she argued.

But without them, Judge Morris replied, “How could it be a competent evaluation?”

In the end, Judge Morris ordered a new assessment that would include a “psycho-sexual” evaluation.  He asked Ms. Myka to arrange for a specialist for the job, after consulting with Ms. Davis and Trudy Miller, the attorney for Ms. Reed.

Ms. Davis could obtain independent evaluations, he noted, and present those to the court.  She and Ms. Miller could also challenge the findings of the court-ordered evaluation, he added.

He set the next hearing on the matter for early August.

In the lengthy motion she filed to terminate the guardianship altogether, Ms. Davis wrote that “two separate and independent psychologists have determined George St. Francis to NOT be mentally retarded.”

Until September 2009, Ms. Davis said, the people in charge of Mr. St. Francis medicated him with Prozac, lithium carbonate, Topamax and Seroquel.  “He was taking ALL of these, concurrently, and has been for years,” she wrote.

“Side effects of these medications include drowsiness, dizziness, fatigue/insomnia, and headaches.  Side effects of the lithium include blackouts, seizures, slurred speech and confusion.  Side effects of Topamax include mental and physical slowing and delays, coordination problems, confusion, difficulty with concentration and attention.”

“Today,” Ms. Davis wrote, “clear of thought and medication, with a home, a wife, a life on the farm and the security that that brings, he no longer wants a guardianship of any kind.”

Though he has attended the hearings on his fate, Mr. St. Francis has never had an opportunity to testify.  On Thursday, waiting in the corridor for proceedings to start, Mr. St. Francis chatted with his guardian’s husband, Alan Reed, who seems to be a particular friend.

Mr. St. Francis, a large man with a quick smile and a keen sense of humor, sought detailed advice from Mr. Reed on how to deal with a tractor that had broken down on his wife’s farm.

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