by Paul Lefebvre
copyright the Chronicle October 8, 2008
Two former clients of the Safe Choices program who went into the program under cloudy circumstances said in recent interviews they were treated as if they were sex offenders and threatened with jail if they left the program.
One of them, a homeless man, said he signed himself into the program on the belief he would receive socializing skills.
The other went into the program as a teenager, following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior. During his participation, he was also a resident at the group home known as the Lowell House. He eventually left the program and presently works as a hired hand on a dairy farm.
“I feel like I wasted five years for nothing,” he said over the course of an interview last week that exceeded an hour. “They never helped me with nothing.”
Their stories came to light as Probate Judge John Monette issued an order last month to protect George St. Francis, presently a resident in the program at Lowell House, from any harassment or threats by the program’s staff and the Office of the Public Guardian.
The judge issued his order after the courts received petitions from Mr. St. Francis that his state guardian be terminated and one of his own choice, Janet Reed of Craftsbury, be appointed his private guardian.
Judge Monette was expected to rule last Thursday on an appeal of his order by the state. But on Wednesday, October 1, the case was transferred to Orleans County Family Court by Judge Walter Morris.
The transfer order consolidates two pieces of litigation, including one to end the state’s guardianship of Mr. St. Francis.
An attempt to learn when the hearing will be heard in Family Court met with no results. Citing confidentiality rules, County Court Clerk Laura Dolgin refused to acknowledge whether such a case exists.
Because of rules that seek to protect the privacy of citizens deemed to be of significantly below-average intelligence, Mr. St. Francis’ fight to wrest control of his life away from the state will be conducted behind closed doors. But in an investigator’s affidavit filed in Probate Court, Mr. St. Francis said he “wants the public to hear about his terrible experiences in the Safe Choices Program.”
In an effort to learn more about the program, the Chronicle talked to two “consumers” who have left Safe Choices.
Run by the Developmental Disabilities Division of Northeast Kingdom Human Services, Safe Choices was started in 1993. According to a letter he wrote in 2003 to describe the program to a state senator, Executive Director Eric Grims wrote of the need for a noninstitutional program that would treat clients with “problematic sexual behaviors” while still staying true to the axiom “The people’s safety is the highest law.”
Initially, the program was founded, according to the letter, “to deliver services to three mentally retarded clients who had been charged with sexual crimes but were subsequently found incompetent to stand trial.” Over the years, the program has evolved to offer services to a more diverse clientele, who are considered to be developmentally disabled and have “problematic sexual behaviors” that never landed them in court.
The program offers a variety of services including employment support, crisis intervention, therapy (group and individual with a licensed psychologist), trained home providers, small group residential care, and psychiatric care.
Of the two men who came forward to be interviewed about their experiences in the Safe Choices program, one was a resident in the Lowell House, where Mr. St. Francis lives, while the other continued to live with a respite worker within the community. In exchange for their stories, each was promised his identity would not be revealed.
Wendell is in his early twenties and appears to be outgoing and confident. He answers questions without being cued by his attorney, and he is clearly proud to have a job and own a car that he drove to the interview. He went to the Safe Choices program when he came under a cloud of sexual allegation while still living at home.
“My stepfather wanted me to go into the program,” he said. “He was my guardian at the time. They did what they had to do at the time and that was it. They said I molested a 16-year-old.”
It is not clear how many allegations there were or who made them. Wendell denied any wrongdoing during the interview.
Neither he nor another former client of the program — who for the purposes of this story shall be known as Donald — has been convicted of any sex crime.
Donald is a 37-year-old man who came to the interview dressed in a jacket and tie, and accompanied by his caretaker, Floyd, whom he has lived with for eight years. Tall with a wide-eyed look that suggests some disability, he appears to be shy and withdrawn except for a huge belly laugh that comes out of him with surprising ease.
While never a resident of the Lowell House or any group home, Donald was in the Safe Choices program from July 2002 to December 2006. He said he voluntarily entered the program hoping to improve his writing and reading skills. “I was looking for help,” he said.
A special education student who graduated from St. Johnsbury Academy, Donald said he became a homeless person when his caretaker failed to pay the rent. Out on the streets he was picked up by police when somebody said he was dangerous. A Littleton, New Hampshire, family bailed him out of jail, and his present caretaker, Floyd, came into the picture when someone from Kirby asked if Donald could live with him. From there he enrolled in the program, signing an agreement on July 29, 2002, with Northeast Kingdom Human Services, declaring:
“It has been explained to me that the services (shared living provider, respite, service coordination, day program) are available to me ONLY through the Safe Choices program because I have been identified as a person with problematic sexual behaviors.”
In signing the agreement, Donald said, he was familiar with the program “ because I was in it a short time before.” But this time around he quickly became discouraged with it, complaining it focused almost exclusively on sex.
He said he had day programs five days a week in which a worker would take him for drives. “Ride around the countryside and ask you how many times you masturbated,” Donald recalled. “I told one day worker 65 times, and that shut him up.”
At another time on a ride around the countryside, they came upon what appeared to be a cow’s skull. The day worker asked Donald if that turned him on. As in the rides, sex reputedly dominated his therapy sessions. According to Donald, he was told it was okay to have sex with “chickens and goats and all that.” Even to the point, he added, with a knot hole in a wall or tree.
“I really didn’t know what to think,” he said, as he recalled the incident during his interview. “I said, this is a new one. They said if I left the program, they would send me to jail.”
Sex was also at issue in the group therapy sessions in which Wendell was a participant. The group sessions were held in Newport, once a week. There was an afternoon group and a morning group.
“They said I had sex fantasies toward kids. I told them I did not,” he recalled. “It turned into an argument. After a while I learned to just keep quiet.”
A funding sheet with a starting date of July 1, 2006, indicates that yearly costs for providing Wendell with services and a place to live came in at $187,766. Of that amount, $4,608 was spent on counseling. The lion’s share of the bill belonged to the $138,811 charged for his residency at the Lowell House.
Wendell said he spent five years in the Safe Choices program, and was constantly moved around. “The program kept me in control. Moving me from place to place. I stayed at more than 12 places.”
He also said, with a note of sarcasm, that they couldn’t find him a steady home because he was perceived as a sex offender. He does, though, admit to having a temper.
At some point during his stay at the Lowell House he got into an altercation over some missing food. “We had a grocery list for two weeks, but stuff was missing. I kinda got mad about it. I pushed a staff member.”
Later in the interview, recalling the incident, he said he got mad because the staff worker evidently had not read his file. “I get pissed when they don’t leave me alone,” he said.
The altercation occurred on May 11, 2006. Police were called, and Wendell went to court in August. Eventually he was given a one-year deferred sentence. Special terms of his probation required him to be supervised by Safe Choices. Two weeks after his probation was up, Wendell left the program. He has been out of the program for roughly a year.
“They weren’t treating me good. They constantly called me names,” he said. “I had a funny feeling they were over-medicating me to keep me in. After three months out, I weaned myself off the medications.”
Throughout the time he was in the program, Wendell’s mother served as his guardian. A court will hear his petition later this month to get on with his life without a guardian. Donald, on the other hand, refused all attempts to have a state guardian appointed for him.
“They would own me,” he said.
Safe Choices keeps its clients under closer supervision. Both Wendell and Donald allege that it’s an arm length’s supervision that requires them to apply for permission to enter a given store or place.
Donald recalled the time he wanted to go to the funeral of a friend, who been killed in a skiing accident. “They didn’t want me to go,” he said, speaking of the program’s staff. “Said I’d have sex with the corpse.”
Some critics of the program express fears that such tight supervision insulates clients from the community, and prevents even family member from seeing how they’re doing.
“They wouldn’t let him see his parents,” said Floyd who has lived and provided care for Donald in both New Hampshire and Vermont. “They criticized me because on holidays, I’d let him see his parents.”
When Donald left Safe Choices, the program cut off Floyd’s annual stipend of roughly $18,000. Donald presently receives about $754 a month from SSI (Supplemental Security Income).
Neither Floyd nor Donald believes he was well served by the program.
“I became concerned about the program three months into it,” said Floyd. “There are other things in life beside sex. Sex. It was constant. Some days after the day program, it might take two days to get him settled down. He felt he was evil, no good.”
Donald said that at some point in the program he was given a “P test.” That’s shorthand for a penile plethysmograph test, a highly invasive and controversial test that measures what sexually arouses men.
The program deemed Donald a high risk. Among the steps he was asked to take by his therapist was to keep a fantasy log. Donald said he refused to do it, but the day workers took over and made entries for him.
“They wrote them in their own ways. If I saw young women, they said I wanted to have sex with them.”
Eventually, Donald was asked to leave the program. “They didn’t want me,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
“Does anyone ever graduate from the program?” he was asked.
“You never do in that program,” he said. “They have you the rest of your life.”
Editor’s note: In an interview Monday, the staff of Safe Choices said that some of the stories told by Wendell and Donald are simply untrue. Next week the Chronicle will report on the program from the point of view of the people who run it.