Safe Choices 30 – Editorial: A footnote on Safe Choices

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copyright the Chronicle May 18, 2011

Almost two years ago, when we thought the story of George St. Francis had finally reached its conclusion — at least journalistically — we needed to explain what we thought we were up to.  We wrote a cover letter for our submission of the series to an investigative journalism contest run by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.  (It won first place.)  We dug that letter up, dusted it off a bit, and offer it here as an explanation of what we think we’ve been up to.

In October 2008, in a plain brown envelope with no return address, we received a document from Orleans County Probate Court — the one, of all the courts we cover, that generates the least news.
The document was a protective order in which the judge, in strong and direct language, ordered the state and its agents not to do a long list of unpleasant things to a man named George St. Francis who, on the state’s authority, was in a program called Safe Choices.
We had heard complaints about the program before, but had never found a way into the story.  Mr. St. Francis, like everyone in Safe Choices, had not only been found to be mentally retarded as a legal matter, but was also suspected of being sexually dangerous.
An underlying theme in this series is the habit of the state and its agents, when accused of mistreating its most vulnerable citizens, of taking refuge behind the privacy rights of the very people who are complaining about the state’s behavior.  In this case the Office of the Public Guardian, which controlled every aspect of George’s life, decided very quickly that it would not be in George’s best interest to talk to us.
Nevertheless, the fact that we had the order in our hands over a judge’s signature provided a foundation on which we could start to build a series of stories.
When we started the series the focus of the state’s media and politics was very much on protecting children from sexual predators, in the aftermath of the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl.  Whatever our reasons for devoting so much of our very limited time and space to the rights of this neglected and almost invisible group of men, climbing aboard the bandwagon of popular opinion was not among them.
That may explain why our story was so slow to develop “legs”; was never picked up by our colleagues in the media.  It wasn’t until earlier this year that the Caledonian Record decided to run the entire Safe Choices series.  It was a remarkable, possibly even unprecedented decision for one newspaper to publish a competitor’s work, with full credit to the original authors and their newspaper.  We, of course, were delighted to have our colleagues at the Record help spread the word.
The public response has also been muted.  People call to tell us we are on the right track, urge us to keep working, but rarely give us their names.
We kept going because we kept finding evidence that a necessary program, operating with great authority in almost total obscurity, had run off the rails.  George St. Francis said, in our first article, that he wanted the public to know about the way he was being treated.  The public knows at least something of that, two years and 24 articles later, and George’s life has, finally, changed for the better. — C.B.
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