Safe Choices

by Bethany M. Dunbar

September 18, 2009

Every week working journalists make decisions about what they will spend their time on, how much, and how to pursue a story.  As money gets tighter, so does our time.

This year the Chronicle made an extraordinary decision to pursue a story about a program called Safe Choices.  It turned into a series of articles, and it took a lot of work.  Huge amounts of work.  No one has asked me, personally, why we decided to do this.  In fact we have had a number of phone calls and conversations from people who did not want to be named in the articles but appreciated our extra efforts.

When it came time to enter the annual New England-wide newspaper contest this year, we decided the Safe Choices series was the one piece of work we ought to at least submit (despite our tight budget for anything — such as contests — beyond the newsroom).  Our publisher, Chris Braithwaite, wrote a letter putting the series into context.  I thought this might be a good opportunity to sort of put that thought out there into the world.  Here is a copy of the letter Chris wrote.  You can read the entire series at the Chronicle’s web site:

I hope you will check it out, if you haven’t already.  Let us know what you think.  Thanks again for reading.

The Judges

2009 Better Newspaper Contest

Dear People,

In October last year, 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.  As I write this, we are still trying to arrange our first face-to-face meeting with him.  [The meeting finally was arranged and is written up as part of the series on the Chronicle’s web site.  The tenth story in the series includes Mr. St. Francis’ wedding photo.]

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 has never developed legs; was never picked up by our colleagues in the media.  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, ten months later, and George’s life has changed in some profound ways.

Chris Braithwaite

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3 responses to “Safe Choices

  1. I’ve never appreciated the Chronicle more than during your coverage of the Safe Choices program. You accomplished what several public investigations failed to do (one conducted by the Auditor of Accounts, Tom Salmon): to uncover one of the mental health community’s dirty little secrets. Safe Choices creates an expensive, police state where “participants” have no rights. Your dogged, constant coverage was awesome.

    Truly a David and Goliath story; how great to see the little guy win! There were many unsung heroes, as well as victims, in this series. My heart goes out to Kathy McCammon, who was vilified by state government, lost her livelihood, and yet somehow, kept her sanity. Attorney Trudy Miller deserves a shoutout, too…I wonder if any other lawyer would have gone the distance she did, often, way behind the scenes.

    With our weakened state treasury, more than ever, Vermonters need to question budget busting programs like Safe Choices. What an ironic name…as it is neither safe, nor are any choices involved. As a taxpayer, I ask our representatives to cut the funding for such unproven, repressive programs. Let’s get back to basics, and help people in need develop relationships, find a home and something meaningful to do. I can’t imagine any man living at Safe Choices’ barren, isolated Lowell House has a chance at achieving these basic life sustaining goals.

    Several years ago, I unsuccessfully sought to become George St. Francis’s guardian, to help him break free of his oppressors. At that time, I was told by the courts that I had a “personal agenda” that made me unfit for the job.

    My personal agenda is and was what I believe fueled the Chroncle’s series…an overarching conviction about human rights and social justice.

    Please and thank you for the series. DON’T STOP THE COVERAGE. The main stream media’s lack of interest is no barometer for gauging the importance of this story, a story I suspect, someday, will be referenced as “award winning.”

  2. Congradulations on your award. Your diligence and perserverance has paid off, for at least some who are victums of this program known as Safe Choices. George wanted his story told and you have done a great job telling it. It was not just a story but an account of real human beings and their struggles. You treated them with respect and humility while stating the facts. Truly responsible journalism. The brochure I was given on how to be a “good guardian” states that the ideal guardian treats them with respect, listens to their hopes and dreams, helps them to become more independent and makes sure their rights accordng to the Developmental Disability Act are protected. Thank you for your care and consideration in telling George’s difficult story. Janet Reed

  3. I am sincerely greatful to Brian and all his cohorts for taking thihs on. I have so much to say about the last six years of my sons and my life. I could write a book but I’m waiting for the happy ending. My son is Bill Bennnett the most recent addition to the “Safe Choice Survivors” club. Though he is still in the program and being housed in a desolate location in Lowell, the “Lowell House”, we have so much hope. He is an inspiring young man who has been deprived for six years of the kind of dignity and care that we all deserve, especially or most vulnerable populations. There are a group of truly good human beings helping these folks. I am working everyday to free my son and gathering an army of supporters. Love and Compassion will prevail. Thank you for not being afraid. Sincerely, Tracy Gilman

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