The Fear of Living Dangerously

After having his hand broken in three places by a mop handle, Darin Militello decided a month ago that it was time he came up with a survival plan. Mulling it over he decided the best way to play it safe would be to avoid risks altogether. So from now...
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After having his hand broken in three places by a mop handle, Darin Militello decided a month ago that it was time he came up with a survival plan. Mulling it over he decided the best way to play it safe would be to avoid risks altogether. So from now on, he says, "I just stay in my room. I don't show my face. I don't go outside. I don't leave unless I have to."

The apartment complex in which Militello lives, the place he calls "the hellhole" -- otherwise known as the Dania campus of Victory Living Programs, Inc. (VLP) -- is just getting too dangerous these days.

Militello is one of 24 men currently residing on this "campus," actually a small, 12-unit apartment compound in Dania. The complex is owned and operated by VLP for the purpose of providing a safe environment for teaching mentally retarded men the life-management skills they'll need to survive on their own.

Mildly retarded himself, Militello is nevertheless one of the highest-functioning and most articulate VLP residents. And he is concerned with not only his own safety but the safety of those residents whose severe retardation renders them most vulnerable to abuse or harm. To him the problem is simple: "[VLP management] is bringing some very bad cases in here, and they're not checking them out."

Although he seems sincere in his concern for his defenseless neighbors, Militello doesn't realize that his own presence at VLP represents part of the very problem he describes. Militello came to VLP by way of the Broward County courts, having been assigned in January after pleading guilty to a charge of sexual assault. He must wear an ankle monitoring device 24 hours a day and cannot leave the premises without permission and accompaniment.

Over the last two years, a growing chorus of family members and social workers have been complaining that VLP has neglected its responsibility to protect its more helpless residents. The program, they say, has proved itself too willing to admit individuals who exhibit mental illnesses or behavioral problems and -- most ominously -- individuals who have violent or criminal backgrounds. To place such people side by side with others whose severe retardation renders them childlike and trustingly naive, these critics allege, is to build a bomb with a short fuse.

Late one night in the spring of 1997, the bomb exploded.
Larry Baker, a 41-year-old mentally retarded man who has lived at VLP since 1995, is relatively low functioning by VLP standards and was not placed there by the courts for violent or criminal behavior. He's also schizophrenic, yet he nevertheless seems well liked by his fellow residents on the campus. "He's a bit off the wall," says Richard Quarterman, who lives in his own VLP apartment nearby, "but everybody likes Larry."

Not so Johnny Potts, one of Baker's alleged kidnappers. Potts had come to VLP as a 21-year-old straight out of a foster home. He had spent almost his entire childhood under the supervision of the juvenile court, says a Division of Children and Families (DCF) staffer who has read his agency case file. Potts has a history fraught with violence against authority figures and others, this staffer says. "He had built up a history as a troublemaker."

Nothing seemed to change after Potts arrived on campus at VLP. "Oh, yeah, that Potts, he was always yelling, always running around screaming. He was a bad influence," says resident Quarterman, in an opinion echoed by other residents.

In a deposition VLP resident Arthur Priceman stated, "Well (Potts) has a short fuse, similar to mine, and gets mad when he doesn't get what he wants when he wants it. So he'd knock a bench over and get mad and, you know, cuss people out and take on anybody that gets in his way." For his part Militello says he knew there was something wrong with Potts the day he met him. "That guy was definitely a fruitcake," he says. "The first day, he kept hammering on my door, again and again and again, just to show me a radio."

None of this was news to VLP management at the time. Harry Thomas, VLP assistant director, said in a deposition that Potts was "OK, but when he has these incidents and he's acting up, he's really tough to deal with." And a former VLP staffer who didn't want to be identified in this story says Potts was "a holy terror," adding that he seemed to intimidate some less-experienced staffers. "He's the only client I ever knew, they'd give him beer and money just for being good. Of course, then he would act up just to make sure he got all these things." A VLP administrator denies that staffers ever bribed residents with beer or money.

Sometime during the night of May 30, 1997, Potts apparently lost all control. With another new VLP resident named Israel Belhomme in tow, Potts allegedly broke into Larry Baker's apartment, tied him hand and foot to his bed with belts, and proceeded to bite Baker's arms, burn him with cigarettes, and fondle him sexually, according to court records. Belhomme also allegedly took part in the assault.

The single VLP staff member on duty told police that she'd heard nothing from Baker's room that night. According to Thomas, VLP assistant director, that staffer had been distracted by an unrelated altercation in the parking lot; nobody learned about the incident until 9:20 a.m. the next day, when Baker finally wriggled free and reported it. An internal VLP incident report described Baker's upper right arm as exhibiting "red and purple bruises" at that time.

Baker's account of his ordeal was supported by another VLP resident, Arthur Priceman, who stated in a deposition that he'd eavesdropped on the entire incident. Earlier that evening, Priceman said, he'd overheard Potts and Belhomme talking about paying Baker "a visit" later that night, so when he saw the two men enter Baker's apartment, he followed them inside. Seeing the bedroom door closed, he said he pressed his ear against the door and listened closely.

"Larry was screaming, 'Stop it! Stop it!' Priceman said in his deposition. "And they were giggling." The incident lasted from ten to fifteen minutes, Priceman said, after which Potts and Belhomme came out of the bedroom. Seemingly surprised to find him there, the two men passed him by without saying a word. Priceman says he then went to bed without telling anyone.

The next day, after Baker described the ordeal to a staffer, Potts and Belhomme were arrested and charged with felony kidnapping, burglary, and assault. Both cases are now pending, with Belhomme currently awaiting trial in the Broward County Jail, while Potts has been found incompetent to stand trial and is now living in a group home in Tampa that provides 24-hour intensive supervision.

It might be possible to view what happened to Baker as an isolated incident -- if not for Billy Whitehead. Less than four months earlier, the severely retarded Whitehead had experienced a disturbing late-night sexual encounter that probably was nonconsensual. Although some details remain unclear, at least one former VLP staffer close to the investigation believes to this day that "Billy was raped."

As reconstructed from VLP incident reports, Broward Sheriff's Office investigative reports, and internal VLP memoranda, Whitehead's story unfolds with a visit from his mother on a Saturday morning in late February 1997.

When Pat Prutsman arrived on the VLP campus to visit her son Billy, she immediately noticed that something was wrong. Forty-two years old, Whitehead had been a resident of VLP since 1985. Almost surely he will never achieve the independence that is the program's goal, because he is one of the lowest-functioning VLP residents, with an IQ of 29 and an intellectual level approximately that of a six-year-old. He has no history of violence and has always displayed a happy, childlike personality.

That morning, however, he seemed "quite upset," and Prutsman, after talking to him, approached the VLP staffer on duty. In his report that staffer later wrote: "She seemed quite upset. She told me that Billy was sexually assaulted." From Whitehead's account the culprit appeared to be a resident named Alphonso Griffin. "I spoke to both [Griffin] and [Whitehead] briefly. I was almost sure that this report was true," the staffer wrote.

The staffer chronicled the two men's accounts as follows, using the initials A.G. for Alphonso Griffin and B.W. for Billy Whitehead: "B.W. was in bed when he heard a knock at the door. When he answered, A.G. was there, and came into the apartment. B.W. told him to leave. A.G. then pulled B.W.'s pajamas down, and started to feel B.W.'s private areas. A.G. then took out his penis, and pressed it to B.W.'s anus. A.G. penetrated B.W. and started pumping... Sunday morning, A.G. admitted that it was all true."

Although Griffin is more advanced than Whitehead in his mental functioning, he was not interviewed for this article because of his disability. His ability to understand questions is limited.

More than a year later, VLP Executive Director Dennis Des Jardin says it remains unclear whether either of the incidents described above -- the one involving Baker or the one involving Whitehead -- actually occurred. In the Baker case, the court has ruled that Potts is incompetent to stand trial, and Jim Ongley, Potts' defense attorney, says he doubts whether the situation will change anytime soon. Belhomme is currently awaiting trial, his attorney was unavailable for comment.

Despite his program's own internal incident reports, arrest reports, and depositions, Des Jardin says that, in light of the lack of any criminal convictions in the case, he has no reason to believe now that there ever was an incident of torture on his campus.

Regarding Billy Whitehead, Des Jardin now similarly says he has no reason to believe anything ever happened between Griffin and Whitehead. "We all came to the conclusion that we will never know what went on in that room. In fact I think it's quite possible that nothing happened at all."

Des Jardin is basing this opinion partly on a Broward Sheriff's Office investigation that ended inconclusively after Whitehead's psychologist advised the detective that interviewing Whitehead "might be detrimental to his mental health." The detective wrote that the psychologist told him "the victim is afraid of police, and that if I attempt to interview him it could cause more damage than good." The report ended, "Due to the fact that there is a lack of medical evidence, and the victim cannot be questioned, I cannot substantiate that a crime actually occurred. Therefore, this case will be closed and deemed unfounded."

Des Jardin says his staff followed up with intensive monitoring of the two men to detect ongoing patterns of abuse and found nothing. However, an internal VLP report dated March 7, 1997, came up with a different conclusion. "There appears to be no dispute that an incident involving sexual behavior did occur," the report clearly states, noting that the staff of Phoenix House, a sexual-assault treatment center where Whitehead was treated, had rated the possibility of sexual activity as "highly likely."

Today a former VLP staff aide recalls that "at the time we were trying not to overdramatize it. We were instructed not to make too big of an issue of it. There was a panic right after it happened -- this lasted for a month, maybe a month and a half. But then nothing ever came of it." Both Griffin and Whitehead still live on the VLP campus. Des Jardin says there has been no additional incident involving the two men.

Potts and Belhomme, meanwhile, are gone, but not because of any concern on the part of the VLP staff over the safety of Larry Baker or any other resident. It was prosecutor Hope Bristol, not Des Jardin, who insisted that neither Potts nor Belhomme be permitted any further contact with Baker. For his part Des Jardin says he would have been happy to consider readmitting Potts or Belhomme. "I really felt we were getting somewhere with Johnny," he says.

If Potts were ever to show up on campus again, "Larry would freak out," says Militello, who has known Baker for years and thinks of him as a friend. "It'd be like a woman who was raped seeing her rapist on the street. She'd freak out."

Baker apparently agrees. From his deposition:

Q:What if (Belhomme) got out of jail and he came to live at Victory Living?
A:No more.
Q:What if he got out of jail and he went back to live at another apartment in Victory, would you be upset?

A:Yes, upset.
A:I don't want him there no more.

VLP's willingness to accept dangerous or violent residents on its campus isn't earning any applause from some quarters. Especially concerned are social workers whose job it is to guard the interests of the developmentally disabled.

"This place has become a dumping ground for the court system, and it's putting people in danger," says one such social worker who has worked with many VLP residents over the years. "Last year I stood up at a meeting [of state regulators] and told them that, flat out. You know what they said? They said, 'Look, we know you're right, but there's nothing we can do.' What do you think of that? 'There's nothing we can do.'" (The worker requested that her name not be used in this article because, she says, her agency -- like all social service agencies -- is vulnerable to a cutoff of DCF funding.)

Although Clark Brownell, director of developmental services for the Department of Children and Families, says he doesn't recall such a meeting, he acknowledges that his department would be under pressure if VLP suddenly refused to take court-ordered residents. Still, Brownell says he is "uncomfortable" with some court-ordered placements at VLP.

And in any case, VLP itself has clearly acknowledged that the safety of its residents has been compromised. "Victory Living Programs is currently experiencing conditions which threaten the health, safety, and welfare of the individuals we serve... Limitations within the state criminal justice system and conflicts regarding the responsibility for serving individuals with dual diagnosis have resulted in these individuals being referred for placement in facilities with 'less than desirable' resources," reads a VLP memo to DCF dated August 19, 1997.

"Within the past 17 months, VLP has received 22 requests/pleas from DS [the Developmental Services division of DCF] to provide services to such individuals. These 22 individuals, who are significantly more aggressive and disruptive, have been or are currently 'housed' within VLP programs. Assaults (physical and sexual) on other residents, program disruption, and a significant increase in property destruction have created a need for increased services in order to provide better assurances for the safety of the residents."

Brownell and Des Jardin agree that VLP did receive the additional funding it requested. "It's my understanding that they used this to boost their staffing levels," says Brownell, who says the funding boost amounted to $32,000 per year. Yet a year later, Brownell says he is disturbed to learn that VLP's overnight and weekend staffing level still consists of a single on-duty aide. "That's something I think we're going to have to look into," he says.

Martine Lacomb, director of development for the Broward Association For Retarded Citizens, says supportive living programs have a responsibility to act in their clients' best interests and that she would have "serious ethical concerns" with a decision to place any vulnerable client with a dangerous or abusive housemate.

Victory Living Programs isn't really used to being criticized in public. For most of its 31-year history, in fact, the program has been held up as something of a model of success.

The program got its start in 1974, the brainchild of a Broward woman named Gloria Vaden who was desperately searching for an alternative to institutionalization for her mildly retarded son. Vaden ended up renting a house near Sunrise Boulevard for her son, and several other mentally retarded men eventually moved in as well.

The life of semi-independence seemed to work well for the men, who were taught how to cook, clean, and handle a household by family members who checked on them several times a week. More tenants followed, another house was rented out, and in 1977, Vaden formed a nonprofit corporation in order to receive state funding and hire a staff.

Now, 31 years after incorporation, Vaden's idea has acquired a formal name -- "supportive living" -- and spawned a large and growing subsection of state-funded social service programs in the county and across the state. In the supportive-living model, low-functioning individuals are matched with a "coach" or "counselor" who teaches them life-management skills and assists with shopping, balancing a checkbook, cleaning, and so on. The idea is gradually to move the client away from reliance on the coach and toward full independence.

Although the concept of supportive living is now widespread, VLP retains a unique approach. In its fundraising literature, Victory Living Programs boasts that its philosophy "sets the agency apart from other residential programs for the handicapped. The staff of Victory Living Programs respects the choices of the handicapped individual, rarely intervening unless an individual's safety and welfare is at risk."

Whereas most supportive-living residents live in apartments or rented rooms scattered across the city, with a counselor (or combination of specialized counselors) who visit anywhere from several times a week to once a month, VLP alone operates an independent compound in which residents live together in 12 one-bedroom apartments. The VLP campus is "the only one of its kind in the state," boasts Carlos Sepulveda, VLP campus supervisor.

An additional point of uniqueness is VLP's willingness to take on residents that other programs would consider too risky. Alone among supportive-living agencies in Broward County, VLP accepts "all spectrum of behaviors," Sepulveda says.

Des Jardin explains his philosophy of taking risks on men with violent histories: "It's easy to just look at the history and make a superficial judgment, but unless you are privy to all the antecedents or provocations, you can't make a balanced statement. In many respects the smaller the circle, or the closer the walls, the more likely it is that someone will lash out against those walls. At some point when they have freedom to make their own choices, they tend to make the right choices."

It's a philosophy that has proved a boon to an overburdened DCF, which in recent years has come under increasing pressure from courts to find placements for defendants found incompetent to stand trial.

Under a 1996 state law, a defendant who has been ruled incompetent to stand trial must be removed from the jail within 15 days and placed in an appropriate "alternative setting." Such a setting may range anywhere from a boarding house with court-ordered counseling to virtual imprisonment at a full-fledged "lock-down" facility for mentally ill or mentally disabled defendants. The appropriate placement is determined by a combination of court-ordered psychological evaluations and a review of placement possibilities conducted by DCF staff.

Florida currently has just a single institution to which courts can send mentally retarded defendants deemed by the court to be a danger to themselves or others: the Mentally Retarded Defendants Program at Chattahoochee, which has only 30 beds, says Marianne Warren, a DCF senior human-services program specialist. If no slot is available at Chattahoochee, Warren begins calling other agencies to find an appropriate placement, she says. Currently, only four facilities are willing to accept residents deemed to be dangerous; VLP is one of these. "They do take them, and I really appreciate it," she says.

The problem -- and the danger -- however, goes back to those same qualities that make VLP unique. Each of the other three facilities that take court-ordered residents consists of a "very structured" group home featuring "intensive 24-hour supervision" and is designed so that court-ordered residents are not mixed in with the general population, Warren says. "Those programs are pretty much specialized."

The exception is VLP. There, the vulnerable members of the general population find themselves, through no fault or choice of their own, sharing a campus -- or even sometimes a bedroom -- with potentially dangerous men who may have committed violent felonies that include sexual assault.

Housing the mentally retarded with the mentally ill is "fucked up," says Assistant Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. "The hallmark of retardation is a desire to please, which makes the retarded some of the most vulnerable people in our society." Des Jardin, for his part, points to one of Finkelstein's own clients to buttress his point that such placements are not unduly dangerous. In October 1996 a new resident arrived at the VLP campus, a man named Richard Birchfield, who had been found incompetent to stand trial on charges of sexual battery of three Hollywood children. Broward Circuit Judge Susan Lebow not only ordered DCF to allow Birchfield into VLP, she held the agency in contempt of court for its inability to find enough placements for defendants like Birchfield.

At the time Des Jardin had no qualm about taking Birchfield. In a memo to staff when Birchfield arrived on campus, he wrote: "All this said and done, we do not believe Richard is a real threat to anyone, and he has no history of violence. It appears he was sexually exploring, unfortunately it was with children...."

Des Jardin's opinion on the advisability of Birchfield's placement is at odds with the opinion not only of DCF's Clark Brownell, but also of Birchfield's own lawyer, Howard Finkelstein. "Look, it was my job as Richard's advocate to get him placed in the best place to meet his own needs," Finkelstein says now. "Does this mean I would have felt comfortable having Richard Birchfield share an apartment with my brother? No, it doesn't."

Although Birchfield's stay at VLP "turned out perfect; we didn't have a single problem with him," according to Des Jardin, Clark Brownell of DCF says the placement made him "very uncomfortable" because of the sexual nature of the allegations against Birchfield.

Yet an ill-advised placement doesn't have to involve someone with an overtly violent or criminal history. It can also involve a client whose level of functioning is much higher or lower than that of his assigned housemate, and this a common occurrence at VLP, says a former staffer who asked not to be identified: "There's always a mismatch of situations. You've got a variety of mentalities, and you end up with a client who's 46 years old and who has the mentality of a six-year-old sharing a bedroom with somebody in his twenties who's very high-functioning. Then you get a lot of problems because of this. This is wrong, yet [VLP management] doesn't seem to address this issue."

Darin Militello isn't new to the VLP campus. On the contrary, he's been living here off and on for much of the last ten years, ever since he pleaded guilty in connection with a 1987 auto theft. The view from his front window is as familiar to him as that of the Hollywood house he grew up in. Straight ahead is a grassy courtyard featuring a wooden gazebo, a couple old secondhand exercise machines, and a few chaise longues. The courtyard is surrounded on three sides by the water-stained, salmon-colored façade of the campus' 12 apartments and on the fourth side by a six-foot security fence that faces the street.

During his years as a VLP resident, Militello claims to have been groped, accosted, insulted, assaulted, and hit by rocks at one time or another. But it is only recently that he says the program has really begun to slide downhill. Last month another resident reportedly kicked Militello in the groin and then came at him swinging a mop handle. The mop-swinger had found a crab on his bed and suspected Militello. Even after being pulled away by a staff member, the man couldn't or wouldn't calm down and "continued to scream, throw rocks, and make threats," according to an incident report written by the VLP staff. Eventually a staff member called 911, and the man was taken to Hollywood Memorial Hospital.

Now Militello says he just wants out of the program. "When I first came here, I was their biggest supporter. I loved this place. I thought this place was great. But man, it's changed. Now it's scary. Look at my hand!"

He's not the only one running scared. Over the past two years, VLP has seen an exodus of residents that has proved so alarming to VLP management that a worried Des Jardin complained in a letter to DCF that competitors were "stealing his clients."

At the same time, the program has experienced a flood of complaints from social workers and residents' family members regarding everything from the cleanliness of the complex to the quality of the staff to the quantity of food in the refrigerators. A sampling:

"The facility looks like a pre-World War Two motel behind a chainlink fence, on the wrong side of the tracks," wrote John Mullee of Wisconsin in a 1997 letter to Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman trying to enlist her help in finding an alternate placement for his nephew, John Saunders. "I've seen better kennels!"

One particular complaint has cropped up repeatedly, and that is the quality of the VLP staff. "I don't think they're very nurturing," says Brenda Hyde of St. Augustine, whose brother, Ken Meyers, was a VLP client until last year. "There is not a great deal of supervision -- not nurturing supervision."

Mullee: "Any time we were ever over there, I never once saw [VLP staffers] out there doing their job. They're always in the offices bullshitting, when they should be outside helping those 24 guys who've had sad-sack lives and are trying to get through."

In a letter to Des Jardin, Harriet Bedy of Pembroke Pines complained of the "newly hired and most certainly ill-prepared counselor" who had been assigned to her son, Michael. "I do not understand how anyone charged with taking care of another person's money can justify incurring needless extra expense in the form of penalty interest because their bills had not been paid on time, not been paid in full or, as in our case, not been paid at all!"

Des Jardin responds, "Basically, these [complaints] were unfounded. [DCF has] not issued any requests for corrective actions. I know where you're getting your information from."

The answer: Mostly from Clark Brownell of DCF. Brownell says that, over the last two years, complaints became so numerous that he felt obliged to look into the situation. His conclusion: "I thought [VLP] was perhaps overextended, that perhaps they didn't have enough staff to handle all the projects they'd taken on." He says he has verbally conveyed his concerns to Des Jardin several times and also explained that VLP is at the moment on the "verge of being required to take corrective action."

In recent years VLP has expanded beyond its original mission. VLP's core component -- supportive-living services -- now employs a professional staff of 27 and an annual operating budget exceeding $850,000. But in recent years, VLP has significantly expanded beyond this core and now includes four different programs: the supportive-living campus; outside supportive-living services (for clients who live in apartments or houses around the county), job-coaching services on a case-by-case basis; and a countywide WAGES contract to provide job coaching to Broward County welfare recipients.

In addition the program has been fundraising hard this year to finish its new headquarters building located next to the Dania campus and to remodel its campus apartments. "We're $70,000 short of our $400,000 capital fund," says board chair Ron Schwartz.

With the need for funds so great, VLP's financial dealings have come under increased scrutiny from state overseers. On October 8 a team of DCF auditors spent a day poring over VLP's books to investigate an accusation that VLP had wrongfully siphoned nearly $6000 out of former VLP resident John Saunders' bank account.

Des Jardin admits taking the money but hotly denies that doing so was wrong. "This corporation has a fiduciary responsibility to all its clients," Des Jardin declares, his voice rising. "If we were to return those funds, our ability to provide the greater good for the greater amount of people would be harmed."

The dispute arose between differing interpretations of the state fee-collection manual, which states that service providers must return to the client any state or federal funds above the provider's cost of care. The manual sets the cost of care for a person of Saunders' functioning ability at $506 per month. Because Saunders is an orphan, his monthly social security check amounts to more than $700, and VLP had been banking that full amount since the beginning of his tenure there.

Des Jardin's "greater good" defense doesn't sit well with the former resident's family. "It's sickening," says John Mullee, Saunders' uncle from Wisconsin, who credits social worker Deborah Skrzypek with having uncovered the disputed transactions when she was checking Saunders' VLP records before having him moved to another agency.

Although Des Jardin had known the auditors were coming, he hadn't known their real mission; his understanding was that the auditors were to conduct a routine check of VLP's books. Brownell, speaking several days before the audit was scheduled to begin, said it was an intentional decision on his part to keep Des Jardin in the dark about the auditors' reason for coming.

Why the secrecy? "We think our best chance of getting [Saunders'] money back is to get all the evidence we need and then make a formal demand," Brownell says. In his mind that would put the ball in VLP's court, leaving Des Jardin with one choice: either comply with the DCF's demand or file a lawsuit himself. Des Jardin derides DCF's position as having "absolutely no semblance to reality. Our cost of care far exceeds [the state-mandated] rate."

Costs may soar high at VLP, but ambition soars even higher. As the program expands by submitting bids for new projects, filling its campus with all the defendants the courts can unload on them, Des Jardin's point about "the greater good" seems an apt illustration of a mindset that puts the needs of the individual far below the requirements of the empire.

Darin Militello may be "slow," as he puts it, but he has a healthy amount of street smarts, and he knows what Victory Living is all about. "It's all about money. That's what it is. It's all about money.

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