|by Chris Braithwaite|
|copyright the Chronicle October 15, 2008
NEWPORT — The people who run the Safe Choices program from a suite of offices on Seymour Lane are in a bind. They work under strict rules of confidentiality, rules that protect the privacy of clients who have two strikes against them. The clients have been found to be developmentally disabled or, in an older term still in official use, mentally retarded; and they have been accused — but with rare exception never convicted — of sexual offenses.
If these “consumers,” as Safe Choices calls them, choose to attack the program or its employees, nobody suspends the rules. In refuting any charges, the staff can’t name names or discuss specific incidents in ways that would identify the participants.
At a meeting last week, the key people behind Safe Choices fell back on general, sometimes passionate defenses of the program itself, its mission, its practices, and its ethics.
As to specific allegations of staff misconduct, they could only offer assurances that amounted to this: Trust me.
One complaint was that a staff member at Lowell House, where three clients live, teased one of them who had been accused of having sex with chickens, among other animals — a charge he denied. The alleged teasing included putting a picture of a chicken on the man’s bedroom door, and making “clucking” noises in his presence.
Would such staff behavior be acceptable, Safe Choices Coordinator Kathy Aiken was asked.
“Absolutely not,” Ms. Aiken replied, “and it’s not true.”
Later in the interview she was asked how she knew the story was untrue.
“There were other witnesses,” she said.
And later still, in a telephone conversation, Ms. Aiken revisited the issue. “The rooster thing as reported to you is not true,” she said. “I’m not saying there wasn’t something with a rooster.”
Another allegation brought to the Chronicle was that consumers were threatened that if they left the program they would go to jail.
“We would never say such a thing,” Ms. Aiken said, “and I would never work for a program that said such a thing.”
However, in some cases such a statement would be the simple truth, Ms. Aiken noted. At least two consumers known to the Chronicle were accused of misdemeanor offenses by Safe Choices staff, convicted, and placed on probation.
Both were ordered to return to the program and obey its rules. Had either of them left Safe Choices while on probation, they might well have gone to jail.
However, the Chronicle talked to one former participant who was not on probation, and said he was threatened with jail if he left Safe Choices. He said he was finally asked to leave the program, and did so without going to jail.
According to figures supplied later by Ms. Aiken, six clients, a third of Safe Choices’ current clientele of 18 men, are in the program under Act 248. That means they are confined to the program by court order. They are men who have been formally charged with sexual offenses, then found incompetent to stand trial because of a mental disability.
Those are the sort of clients Safe Choices was established to deal with, after Brandon Training School for the mentally retarded was closed in the national swing to deinstitutionalization. Until Act 248 was passed in 1988, a mentally retarded defendant who was judged incompetent to stand trial was simply released; case dismissed.
Act 248 set up a civil confinement program to protect the public from such people, and Safe Choices was established by Northeast Kingdom Human Services in 1993 to provide that protection.
Safe Choices’ most difficult clients are kept under arm’s length supervision around the clock.
If it can be called a virtual prison, it is far more expensive than the real thing. It costs $198,637 a year to keep the most expensive client in Safe Choices. The average cost of keeping someone in a Vermont prison is about $43,000 a year, according to the Department of Corrections.
At Safe Choices, the cost per client varies widely, Ms. Aiken said, to a low of $32,270 a year. The total cost comes to $1,959,676 a year. The average cost per client, at $108,871, is more than double the cost of prison.
But two-thirds of the Safe Choices clients, 12 of the 18 men, don’t fit the category of men who have been charged with a sex crime, but can’t be tried or jailed.
Of those 12 men, Ms. Aiken said, seven were sent there by the Office of the State Guardian, which took over their lives on the basis of their mental disability. Two were sent by private guardians. One has no guardian at all, and two were sent by the Department of Corrections.
And it is out of that group that complaints about Safe Choices are emerging. Three men have complained, either directly or in court documents, that the program was abusive, insulting, demeaning, and in the words of one of them, a waste of five years of his life.
All have cloudy pasts, with suggestions of sexual misconduct that never went to court.
Eric Grims, who oversees the program as executive director of Northeast Kingdom Human Services, insisted that their pasts are not so cloudy.
“We have no one in the program who has not been accused of a serious sexual offense,” he said Monday.
“We are the safety net for the state,” Mr. Grims said.
As the meeting opened, Mr. Grims made reference to a short but memorable American novel about a mentally retarded farmhand who falls in love with the boss’ wife, kills her and, as a vigilante mob closes in, is mercifully executed by the companion who has watched over him.
“This is Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men,” Mr. Grims said, “but with better intervention and better outcomes.”
“We believe that the people’s safety is the highest law,” Mr. Grims said. Once that safety is established, he added, Safe Choices tries to provide its consumers with “a full, satisfying life while still being sensitive to the public good.”
Safe Choices is not a fast-growing program. Five years ago it had 17 clients, just one less than it has now.
The cost varies with the amount of supervision required, Ms. Aiken said. Most clients live in private homes with a “shared living provider” who is paid by the program. But some live in homes owned and staffed by Safe Choices, and the most problematic get 24-hour supervision by “awake” staff.
That supervision alone costs $140,000 a year, Mr. Grims said.
If community safety is the program’s primary concern, Ms. Aiken said, it is achieved through a combination of treatment and supervision.
Where treatment doesn’t work, she suggested, maximum supervision is required. As treatment takes effect, supervision can be relaxed.
Her favorite client, she said, was sent to the program through Act 248, treated successfully, and released from the obligation to participate. But he still takes part in Safe Choices, Ms. Aiken said, because “he decided he still needed the program.” The man has a job in the community, she said, and is very successful.
That client, indeed, seems to have fulfilled the program’s mission statement, which Ms. Aiken provided:
“To safely integrate clients into the community.”