HYDE PARK — William Bennett clearly didn’t want to leave for Lowell House. Seated on a bench in the corridor outside the second-floor courtroom in the Lamoille County Courthouse, Mr. Bennett wanted to spend a little more time with his mother, Tracy Gilman, and with his younger siblings, 23-year-old Nate and 21-year-old Amber.
But the woman who had brought him there for Northeast Kingdom Community Services, Tammy Crowe, said she needed to get back to work.
A few minutes earlier, in a surprising show of leniency, Ms. Crowe had said she would drive back alone, and Ms. Gilman could drive her son to Lowell House after their visit.
But she had changed her mind. Mr. Bennett would have to go back with her.
Though he’s 24 years old, William didn’t look like a big brother to Nate and Amber. At four feet, 11 inches and 120 pounds, with close-cropped hair, a new suit and shiny black shoes, William looked like he might be ready to pick up his date for the junior prom.
But William hasn’t been in school since he graduated from Lyndon Institute. In fact, he hasn’t been doing much of anything.
Though, like her eldest son, she’s a small person, Ms. Gilman gives off an air of tough determination. But when she discusses decisions she made that led the family to this courthouse corridor on Friday, March 4, Ms. Gilman can be reduced to tears.
The first such decision was that William needed care the family could not provide.
William was slow. “I don’t think he is retarded,” Ms. Gilman said Friday. “I think he has a learning disorder.”
At any rate, she said, “he was a growing person with a disability. His body was maturing, and his intellect and social skills were lagging a little bit behind.”
Through a local community mental health agency, Northeast Kingdom Human Services, Ms. Gilman placed William in the home of a woman who, she was told, had some expertise in dealing with people like William.
Taking that advice, Ms. Gilman said tearfully in a telephone interview, was one of the biggest mistakes she ever made.
Trouble started when a slightly older girl came to live in the same home. She was 19, and William was 18. William’s therapist flagged the problem, warning that William was uncomfortable with the girl in the house. But she stayed, and after the two were taken to spend a day at a local hotel with a pool and a sauna, the girl lodged a complaint.
William was charged with lewd and lascivious conduct in Caledonia District Court. After an evaluation, the court determined that, as a constitutional matter, he lacked the mental capacity to stand trial.
At that point the state invoked Act 248, which provides for the civil commitment of mentally disabled people who are a danger to others.
Sexual assault, and lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, are among the acts which can establish that danger of harm.
But when she applied to Lamoille Superior Court on February 27 for a writ of habeas corpus, attorney Gertrude Miller pointed out that the charge William had faced, lewd and lascivious conduct, did not rise to that standard — there was no child involved.
Her argument was simple: The court proceedings of November 2006 that placed William in the custody of the commissioner of the Department of Aging and Independent Living (DAIL) were so flawed that they “did not and do not give the commissioner legal authority to have custody of Mr. Bennett.”
In court on March 4, Caledonia County State’s Attorney Lisa Warren referred Judge Dennis Pearson to the police affidavit on which the charge against William was based.
“It showed bodily harm to the victim,” she said. “The state did feel there was enough to possibly charge attempted sexual assault.”
Kim Velk, the attorney for the DAIL, agreed.
“It’s not what’s charged, it’s the conduct,” she told Judge Pearson.
The judge noted that the state Supreme Court has recently grappled with that issue, and asked the attorneys for written arguments.
Ms. Miller also argued that, in those 2006 proceedings, her client had given up important constitutional rights without due process. She argued that neither William nor his mother, who was both his legal guardian and “guardian ad litem” during his criminal case, had signed the stipulation that confined him to the state’s custody.
To that, Ms. Warren, the prosecutor, replied that the court needs to see a transcript of the 2006 proceedings.
“The record will show that Judge Manley went around the room to make sure everybody was on board, including the mother,” she said.
Judge Pearson gave the lawyers until April 8 to read the transcript and file legal arguments.
The upshot of the 2006 ruling was that William was enrolled in the Safe Choices program. It is run by Northeast Kingdom Human Services to treat — and protect the public from — men who have been charged with a serious sexual offense and judged too mentally disabled to stand trial.
Asked in the courthouse corridor how she had felt about the 2006 stipulation, Ms. Gilman again became tearful.
“I was really scared,” she said. “I really did not understand what Safe Choices was. I had no idea.
“I had no idea there were no real rules, and no end date — that’s the biggest thing.
“I had no idea the annual reviews would be so one-sided.
“I had no idea they weren’t going to provide the services somebody with a disability needs to function, to be a productive, safe, well-adjusted member of society.”
William spent his first couple of weeks in Safe Choices at Lowell House, an isolated, end-of-the-road farmhouse in Lowell.
“I didn’t like it there,” he recalled.
Then, like most Safe Choices “consumers,” he lived in private homes with care providers who had agreed to keep him under 24-hour, arm’s length supervision.
The daily routine of Safe Choices consumers has been described in earlier Chronicle articles, both by the men themselves and former staff members, as boring, confining, isolating, humiliating, and devoid of any educational opportunity.
“I’d rather go to trial than spend another second in Safe Choices,” William said on Friday. “If it meant going to jail for a month, that’s what I would choose.”
And if he hadn’t had to spend those four years in Safe Choices?
“I’d probably be in college right now, getting a good education so I can get a good job. I’d probably be social, too, out in the community.”
William shares his mother’s assessment of his intellectual ability. “I do have a learning disability — not a very serious one,” he said.
In the fall of 2010 Ms. Gilman got a court’s permission to move her son out of Safe Choices and into the care of Sterling Community Services, a community mental health agency that serves Lamoille County.
That didn’t work out well either. William said he still received no education, but spent his time watching television and playing video games.
He was placed in the home of Wayne Demar of Eden, who testified Friday that he and his wife, Wendy, cared for Sterling clients who were in crisis and needed a place to go.
William said he wasn’t happy at the Demar house. They were smokers, he said, and smoked in the car while he was a passenger, though he suffers from asthma. He said they also rejected his doctor’s advice that he switch to a low-fat diet. And he found it hard to get the amount of exercise his doctor ordered.
Ms. Gilman turned to Ms. Miller, the attorney, whose efforts to help men trapped in the Safe Choices program have been covered in the press.
Ms. Miller, on her client’s behalf, asked Sterling to produce its records of William’s care and treatment. Ten days later, on January 31, Ms. Gilman said, “Sterling handed me a letter resigning as his service provider.”
Then on February 23 there was an incident at the Demar house. As William and his mother tell it, he made a swiping gesture with his hand while arguing with his host about a phone call he wanted to make to Ms. Miller.
William said he was just indicating that he wanted space, but Mr. Demar took it as a threat.
“He grabbed me by the armpits, threw me on the bed, pinned me to the bed, and said ‘Don’t raise a hand to me, boy,’ three times,” William said.
William said he found the incident painful. He sought, and obtained a temporary restraining order against Mr. Demar, barring any abuse.
Part of the March 4 hearing in Hyde Park was devoted to argument over whether that order should become permanent.
Sterling’s attorney, Robert Halpert, vehemently denied that any abuse had occurred. But Judge Pearson declined to hear any testimony about the incident itself. The issue before him, he said, was whether there was “the likelihood or danger of future abuse.” After hearing Mr. Demar testify that he would not accept William as a client ever again, and would avoid him if they met by chance in public, Judge Pearson vacated the temporary order.
Ms. Gilman said the case is scheduled to move to Caledonia County Probate Court on March 23. The state has filed a motion to have her removed as William’s legal guardian — a motion she plans to oppose.
Meanwhile, William has gone full circle. Because he is no longer under Sterling’s supervision, a court recently ordered him back to Lowell House, the residential facility operated by Safe Choices.
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