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The Fear of Reporting Without Context
I am writing about the article on Victory Living Programs that appeared in your October 22 issue ("The Fear of Living Dangerously," Paul Belden). It is unfortunate that all the good work we do is undermined by a reporter looking to sensationalize a story. He has taken two incidents from over a year and a half ago and a more recent incident and painted it as a picture of our everyday life here. He couldn't be further from the truth.

His report of the incidents, his quotes of myself and other staff (current and former), and the comments reportedly made by state officials are taken out of context, misconstrued to fit his slant of the story, or in many cases, just plain wrong.

Dennis Des Jardins, Executive Director
Victory Living Programs
Dania Beach

The Fear of Working For Victory Living and Not Providing Context
I am writing this letter in response to Paul Belden's article, "The Fear of Living Dangerously," which concerned Victory Living Programs (VLP). I am an employee of VLP and have previously worked on the campus that the article discusses, and I do not believe that the article presents an accurate portrayal of the campus environment.

Mr. Belden paints an ominous picture of the VLP campus, with criminals and sex fiends hulking around corners just waiting to pounce on unwary victims unable to defend themselves. I am disappointed that Mr. Belden decided to take two events -- one which occurred nearly a year and a half ago and the other (if it even did occur) even longer than that -- and use them to present the campus as it is today in such a grim light. The only recent event Mr. Belden presented was that involving Darin Militello, and, although I cannot comment on the incident for obvious reasons, he fails to mention several important aspects of that incident. I have difficulty accepting Mr. Belden's portrayal as legitimate when the physical descriptions of the campus he uses to create the dark foreboding atmosphere he feels impermeates [sic] the residence is taken from a letter written over a year ago. Mr. Belden does not mention the renovations that have been taking place for some time. This would not have fit in with his agenda to present the campus as a dark, dingy, dangerous living environment, and thus it was not included. These exclusions give me cause to question the legitimacy of Mr. Belden's approach to this subject.

I will not debate Mr. Belden's point that there are VLP residents [who] require more attention than others. However, as Mr. Belden indicates, VLP is working with clients [who] have been referred through the legal or social system. These are not hand-picked clients or clients [who] have been sought out. Mr. Belden might have performed a better service had he pursued the lack of available facilities for clients with a criminal or violent background as opposed to attacking one of the few facilities that actually do provide services for these individuals. Furthermore, although these individuals can and do present behavior difficulties, that is the nature of this business. Any member of the mentally challenged population (of any institution, not just VLP, and not just those with criminal backgrounds) is capable of becoming violent or acting inappropriately in the same way that any typical person might, and working on appropriate behavior is what VLP and similar institutions are about.

Finally, I was disappointed in Mr. Belden's decision not to include any of the numerous success stories that have come about on this very same campus. The changes for the better in many of the residents on campus is nothing less than astonishing, and a number of these individuals were the type of residents [whom] VLP is now being criticized for working with. No agency, regardless of funds, ability or staffing, is going to bat 100%, but it appears that Mr. Belden would prefer to dwell on the rare bad apple as opposed to the numerous good apples. Considering what the agency is about and how well the job is done, it saddens me to see our work criticized and undermined by a writer who apparently has no prior experience with this population.

There are other points from the story I could debate, but that would serve little purpose. I would not accuse Mr. Belden of printing false statements, but I will take the position that his legitimacy should be questioned when he presents facts out of context and neglects to present facts that should be known if his readers are to form educated opinions. That he neglected to do so disappoints me, and that he attacked a program such as VLP disturbs me as well.

Mark A. Chmiel, Employment Counselor
Victory Living Programs

Paul Belden responds: Neither Dennis Des Jardins nor Mark A. Chmiel makes a specific allegation of wrongdoing or claim of factual error on my part.

In my reporting of the episode in which Darin Militello's hand was broken, I relied on two sources: Militello himself and an incident report written by Victory Living Programs staff and filed with the state Department of Children and Families. VLP staff declined to answer questions about the matter.

More generally, Chmiel believes the article should have detailed some success stories. I don't agree. If anyone wants to hear about VLP success stories, they can call Des Jardins and ask for one of VLP's promotional brochures or videotapes. If they want to read about the tragic consequences of unsafe conditions at VLP, they can read New Times.

Finally, while bad apples might be rare at VLP, that doesn't make them any less dangerous. It's these kind of bad apples -- and the repeated failures of group-home management to control them -- that can lead to group homes being shut down.

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