by Chris Braithwaite
copyright the Chronicle May 19, 2010
Ten months after George St. Francis got married and stopped receiving services from a community mental health agency, a judge has ruled that his actions violated a Family Court order.
But Judge Walter Morris didn’t direct his lengthy order at Mr. St. Francis, who spent years trying to free himself from the control of courts, state agencies and a program called Safe Choices.
Instead, the judge aimed his polite wrath at Janet Reed, who last summer replaced a state-appointed public guardian as Mr. St. Francis’ private guardian.
“The credible evidence, frankly stated, quite clearly establishes that Mr. St. Francis’ court-ordered developmental services were indeed interrupted, if not terminated, in consequence of the guardian’s fundamental misconstruction of her role and obligations,” Judge Morris wrote in his May 10 order.
The consequences for Ms. Reed, who farms with her husband in Albany, could be severe. She could lose her position as guardian of a man she fought to free from the Safe Choices Program. She could also be found in contempt of court.
But for Mr. St. Francis, the consequences could be life altering.
Judge Morris has ordered another hearing “to consider sanctions or alternative plans for provision of services for Mr. St. Francis….”
And, he wrote, “the options may include reinstatement of public guardianship….”
It was a public guardian who enrolled Mr. St. Francis in Safe Choices. The program was established by the local community mental health agency, Northeast Kingdom Human Services, to treat — and protect the public from — men who were charged with sexual crimes but lacked the mental capacity to be put on trial.
Like other men who have struggled to free themselves from Safe Choices, Mr. St. Francis doesn’t quite fit that category.
Now in his early thirties, he was 18 when he was “adjudicated to be mentally retarded” by a Chittenden Superior Court judge. That ruling led to the appointment of a public guardian.
He wasn’t sent to Safe Choices because he was charged with a sex crime. Rather, the record indicates, his guardian was sufficiently concerned about his behavior to send him to a program that subjects its clients to 24-hour, arm’s length supervision. Mr. St. Francis spent some of his years in Safe Choices at Lowell House, a residence at the end of a winding dead-end road off Route 100.
When the Family Court finally yielded to the efforts of Mr. St. Francis and his supporters to free him from the confines of Safe Choices, it left a substantial string attached:
“The Court orders that Mr. St. Francis continue to receive developmental services to the extent determined appropriate by Provider…, which may include 24 hour supervision.”
And it added a clear instruction to Ms. Reed:
“The Court orders that, if the guardian seeks to deviate from the treatment plan recommended by the designated agency and cannot come to agreement with Provider on the appropriate services for Mr. St. Francis, the guardian must seek prior court approval for such deviation.”
The “provider” was later identified as Sterling Area Services of Morrisville. That mental health agency set up regular appointments with a doctor, and found a home in Northfield where Mr. St. Francis could live and be supervised.
At least until December 31, 2009, Sterling’s “individual support agreement” for Mr. St. Francis said, he required “24/7 eyes on arm’s length supervision.”
That supervision, Judge Morris wrote, was “to address certain risks that Mr. St. Francis might present to others.”
The arrangement quickly fell apart. As soon as she was appointed guardian by the Orleans Probate Court, Ms. Reed gave Mr. St. Francis permission to marry Kathy McCammon and move to her farm in Wolcott.
When it learned that its new client would not keep his appointment with his doctor, nor return to his residence in Northfield, Sterling suspended its services to Mr. St. Francis.
In a series of Family Court hearings since last summer, Ms. Reed has argued that, if anyone violated the court’s order that Mr. St. Francis receive services and supervision, it was Sterling, not her.
But in his order, Judge Morris rejects that argument: “It is disingenuous to assert that cessation of services for Mr. St. Francis was somehow summarily and unreasonably initiated by Sterling.”
Ms. Reed has argued that, in permitting Mr. St. Francis to fulfill his long-expressed desire to marry, she was fulfilling a guardian’s obligation, as she understood it, to protect her charge’s rights and help him lead a full life.
That argument, the judge wrote, was “simply unavailing” in the face of the more specific orders issued by Family Court Judge Robert Bent, who handled the case until Judge Morris took it over.
“The credible evidence,” Judge Morris wrote, “clearly shows that Ms. Reed failed to exercise her guardianship responsibilities as expressly contemplated by the Court; that her failure to do so was willful, that is, intentional, not by mistake or accident.”
What the judge will do about that is less clear. The one thing that all sides seem to agree on, he wrote, is that Mr. St. Francis needs the continued supervision of a guardian.
After conducting another hearing, he wrote, the court might decide to modify the circumstances of Ms. Reed’s guardianship, to appoint a substitute private guardian, or a public guardian who would effectively return Mr. St. Francis to the control of the state Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL).
Options for Mr. St. Francis’ treatment, the judge wrote, include reinstatement of Sterling’s services and an alternative services plan.
The judge noted that Ms. Reed and her attorney, Gertrude Miller, brought their own expert witnesses to court to testify about Mr. St. Francis and his treatment options. The hearings ran out of time before these witnesses could testify.
He ordered Ms. Reed and Ms. Miller to confer with Sterling staff; and Ms. Miller to meet with attorneys representing both Sterling and DAIL.
The hearing will, once again, bring together a remarkable cast of characters.
Repulsed by accounts she heard of the psychological techniques used by Safe Choices, Ms. Reed has worked to help several men leave the program.
Her attorney, Ms. Miller, has been a particular thorn in Safe Choices’ side, and continues to work with clients who have left the program, or are trying to do so.
Mr. St. Francis’ bride, Ms. McCammon, works as an assistant in Ms. Miller’s Newport office.
She is in particularly poor standing with DAIL and its attorney, Jennifer Myka, who continues to charge her with abusing Mr. St. Francis by sleeping with him when she was providing respite care on her farm in 2003.
Both Ms. McCammon and Mr. St. Francis deny that accusation, and the state has twice tried, and twice failed, to make it stick.
An investigator for the state’s agency of Adult Protective Services said he could not confirm the story. And a criminal charge of abuse of a vulnerable adult, bought by the Vermont Attorney General in 2005, was dismissed by the state without explanation.
Ms. McCammon was represented in that case by attorney Susan Davis, who represents Mr. St. Francis in the current case.