Category Archives: Safe Choices (abuse program)

A haircut and an award

by Bethany M. Dunbar, February 12, 2010

I did it.  I went to the Jon Somes Salon in Newport and wow.  What fun, a whole new look for me!   If you have not read my post about the future of journalism, I got this haircut after seeing a full-page ad in the Chronicle and thinking, well, that was a good idea.  I bet it got him a lot of business.  It turns out that was the case, and he was so busy, thanks to the ad, I had to wait a week to get my new look.  The wait was worth it, his rates are reasonable, and I made another appointment.  Yay.  Here’s me yesterday:

Photo by Joseph Gresser

Kind of drab and boring looking, don’t you think?  Thanks Jon!  I feel light and bouncy.  On the way out of the salon, the traffic stopped to let me and my son’s girlfriend go across the street.  Yes, you heard it right.  My new haircut stopped traffic.

The other thing I wanted to mention today is that the Chronicle just won first place for its series of investigative article on Safe Choices.  If you look at my post on that subject here, you will see the letter that our publisher wrote about why we devoted so much time to that story.  Congratulations to Chris Braithwaite and Paul Lefebvre for an excellent job on some very difficult stories.  The entire series is posted on the Chronicle’s web site. If you haven’t read it, you should.  It’s about how we as a society handle mentally disabled men suspected of being sexually dangerous.  These men have not been convicted of anything and can’t go through the court system because they can’t understand it.

Here’s what the New England Newspaper and Press Association judges had to say:

“Weekly Class 2  •  First Place

Paul Lefebvre and Chris Braithwaite,

The Chronicle, Barton, VT

The Chronicle investigated an important issue

that does not ordinarily get a lot of attention

from newspapers. The reporters did a great job

of spelling out the tribulations of these men.

Very nice writing.”

As journalists we are not very good at tooting our own horns sometimes.  Perhaps it’s because one of the hazards of the job is that we have to spend a lot of time listening to other people tooting their own horns.  And we know how that sounds.  But you know, once in a while we really do some good work and should go ahead and toot.  This is one of those times.

We also need to market ourselves better, and we are working on that at the Chronicle.  We’re developing a set of testimonial ads from our regular advertisers about why they use the Chronicle to sell their wares.  This should be a fun series and starts in this week’s paper.  I hope you will check it out!  Thanks for reading and have a great Valentine’s Day.

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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