by Paul Lefebvre
copyright the Chronicle February 25, 2009
NEWPORT — A Safe Choices client moved significantly closer to ending his state custody and trading a public guardian for one of his own choice during a Family Court hearing here that was closed to the public following arguments before the bench.
While no order has been handed down by the court yet, the state appears ready to allow George St. Francis, 30, to choose his own guardian and leave the Safe Choices program — a program founded roughly 15 years ago as a way to deal with suspected sex offenders who have been found incompetent to stand trial.
Attorney Jennifer Myka, representing the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL), told the court that the only issue to be resolved was whether the private guardian chosen by Mr. St. Francis was adequate.
The private guardian under consideration is Janet Reed. She has been a critic of the Safe Choices program in the past, but in the present case has declined to talk to the press.
In Family Court last Thursday, Ms. Reed supported Ms. Myka’s motion that the hearing on the guardianship issue be closed.
Judge Robert Bent did not rule independently on Ms. Myka’s motion, but said instead he would wait until one of the three attorneys at the hearing raised an objection to the press’s presence in the courtroom.
That objection came as soon as Ms. Reed took the stand and was asked how she came to meet Mr. St. Francis. At the direction of Judge Bent, the Chronicle’s reporter and its attorney, Phil White, left the room.
Last week’s hearing could mark the beginning of the end of a long and sustained legal battle that stretches back to 2003 when Mr. St. Francis first tried to leave Safe Choices and replace his public guardian with a private one. That attempt failed, as did another in 2005. But in the fall of 2008 the floodgates opened up.
After a September 4 hearing on Mr. St. Francis’ petition to change guardians and leave Safe Choices, Probate Judge John Monette responded with sternly worded order suggesting that something may be amiss.
The judge ordered the Office of Public Guardianship and members of Safe Choices staff to “refrain from any and all acts constituting abuse, retaliation, intimidation, humiliation, ridicule, exploitation, threat, or harassment” of Mr. St. Francis.
The order also gave Mr. St. Francis access to an attorney of his own choosing, and instructed his state keepers not to change his medication in ways that might hinder his ability to function.
In support of Mr. St. Francis’ request that his public guardianship be terminated and that Ms. Reed of Craftsbury be named his private guardian, two affidavits were filed at the same time alleging that the Safe Choices staff had treated their client with a heavy hand. In one, Mr. St. Francis said he was routinely threatened with jail if he tried to leave the program, where he had been a client for nine years.
Another affidavit, from a 24-year-old man who had spent five years in Safe Choices and lived at the Lowell House while Mr. St. Francis was there, alleged that the program’s therapist accused Mr. St. Francis of having sex with chickens and goats.
The allegations gained traction in the weeks that followed when two former clients gave interviews to the Chronicle, complaining of the treatment they had received while participating in the program. As a condition of the interviews, their identities were not disclosed. But like Mr. St. Francis, each said he was threatened with jail if he sought to leave the program and seek an alternative. And each claimed he was repeatedly made to feel as if he was a sexual deviant.
One eventually left the program, and later convinced Judge Monette that he no longer needed the supervision of his private guardian.
The other, who had entered the program on his own, presently lives with a caretaker of his own choosing.
Throughout his court battles, Mr. St. Francis has asked that his plight be made public and that the press be allowed to follow his case at hearings that are usually closed. That insistence was the first order of business taken up last Thursday by Judge Bent.
Ms. Myka, who represented the state office of Public Guardianship, along with DAIL, told the court the press should be excluded because personal details would emerge from the hearing that would be “inappropriate to be made public.”
Moreover, Ms. Myka argued that restrictions regarding the issue of guardianship were comparable to those involving juvenile hearings. And that each demonstrated “that the Legislature knows how to create a confidential, closed hearing when it so desires.”
In her motion, filed on the day of last week’s hearing, Ms. Myka said the law governing a closed hearing in such cases was clear.
“The statutory presumption is for a closed hearing,” she wrote in her brief. “Though the Court may permit the attendance by individuals not necessary to the hearing, it is under no obligation to do so. This is true even if the person requesting participation has a proper interest.”
For the press, the issue was twofold: an open hearing as sought by Mr. St. Francis; and limited access to the files in the case.
Mr. White told the court there was a compelling need for public access in light of several articles by the Chronicle, raising the issue of government malfeasance. He noted that the paper realized there would sensitive information in the files, that a court-ordered waiver to confidentiality would not be absolute.
The court, however, had an issue of its own.
Judge Bent said he had a roomful of people who had come to Family Court to discuss the issue of guardianship, and they had come with the belief the procedure would be confidential.
The court went on to note that where the line should be drawn between the state’s interest in confidentiality and the public’s right to access was open to discussion, and that any ruling in the case could set a precedent.
He said the issue was akin to the age-old question of whether a camel’s nose should be allowed under the tent.
The judge turned to Mr. St. Francis’ attorney, Tim Yarrow of Morrisville, and asked if his client wanted the hearing to be open.
Mr. Yarrow replied that Mr. St. Francis has consistently wanted the media to “be aware of the process and have access to information” — except that which was personal.
The attorney went on to say that beyond the guardian issue, there was information in the case that should be part of the public record.
“What would that be?” asked the judge.
Mr. Yarrow cited the stipulation that both he and the state were negotiating to turn Mr. St. Francis over to a private guardian. And like Mr. White, he cited the need of a procedure for reviewing the files.
But the three guardians in court last Thursday unanimously sided with the state’s position that it would be in the “best interest of Mr. St. Francis to close this hearing.”
Their positions may have impressed the judge, who said he would go along with them. As for Mr. St. Francis’ desire to keep the hearing open, the court was doubly dubious.
Twice Judge Bent rejected the ability of Mr. St. Francis to speak for himself:
“Not going to take the respondent capable of expressing assent,” the judge said at one time.
“His waiver is minimal to the court at this point,” he said at another.
Mr. White argued the court might be missing the point of why the case had landed in Family Court. He said that in talking to the press, Mr. St. Francis had “blown the whistle on some grave improprieties” that had led to the present hearing.
“The only reason we’re sitting in this hearing today is because of the press’s intervention in this case,” he said.
And the fact that a deal was in the works to transfer Mr. St. Francis from a public guardianship to a private one, said Mr. White, suggested there was some substance to allegations raised about the treatment he had received while a client in the Safe Choices program.
In the end, Judge Bent elected to make no decision, saying he would leave it up to the lawyers “to flag the procedure” and ask the press to leave if they deemed the evidence they were hearing confidential.