By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Effort to commit Gifford shot down
Placeholder Image
MONROE - A 17-year-old deemed incompetent to stand trial on charges of sexual assault can continue to stay in his foster home despite allegations that his foster parents were "hostile" to visiting caseworkers, a judge ruled Friday, June 7.

The hour-and-a-half hearing in Green County Circuit Court revealed a troubled past for the defendant, Michael Peter Gifford, and concluded with agreement between the defense and prosecution that the company entrusted with monitoring him had overstepped its authority and failed to support its case that he needs in-patient treatment.

Gifford, formerly of Monroe, has been staying with a couple in Albany since January, when he was charged with repeated sexual assault, child abuse, incest, second-degree sexual assault and battery. The charges are based on allegations that he repeatedly forced a teen girl to have sex over several months.

Gifford has blossomed in his new home, by the account of multiple witnesses in court, including the case worker with Green County Human Services who helped place him there.

Public defender Guy Taylor also presented the court with letters of support from Gifford's neighbors, Gifford's doctor at Monroe Clinic and the principal at Albany High School, where Gifford was listed on the honor roll this spring.

But a Milwaukee-based company contracted by the Department of Health Services to monitor Gifford alleges the foster parents were hostile toward its employees who stopped by for brief, periodic home visits to monitor him.

In a letter dated May 24, the clinical director of Outpatient Competency Restoration Program (OCRP) demanded an "immediate arrest warrant" be issued for Gifford because his foster parents, Carol and Zdenek Zach, were hostile to the program's caseworkers. One caseworker's report alleged that Carol Zach "finger-pointed in a hostile manner."

Nancy Elliott, the clinical director, said in the letter that outpatient monitoring is no longer working and inpatient services are required to restore Gifford to competency.

Under review at Friday's hearing was a request that Gifford be committed to Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Madison.

It was unclear at the hearing how a government contractor - with no apparent review or approval from its governing agency - had the authority to ask the court to issue an arrest warrant.

Taylor chalked it up to "hubris."

"It was very high-handed. They're not accountable because they're not a state agency, they're a subcontractor," he said. After the company requested Gifford be arrested and committed, OCRP caseworkers "blew off" scheduled appointments, he said.

Taylor and prosecutor Jeffrey Kohl agreed the request to commit Gifford lacked evidential merit.

"He's got the better argument here," Kohl said with a shrug, referring to Taylor's conclusion that the contractor's request shouldn't be granted.

No one from OCRP appeared in court Friday. Kohl said he "tried subpoenaing people" but couldn't get anyone. "Nobody I've spoken to has been able to (explain what happened)," he added.

An official with the Department of Health Services and a psychologist with a contract company associated with OCRP called into the courtroom to undergo questioning by phone. Neither was able to provide a firsthand account of what led to the request to commit Gifford.

The foster parents and several others close to Gifford were eager to testify at the hearing.

Jeannie Erickson, Gifford's former teacher at Monroe High School, said she's known him since the fall of 2011. When he first came the high school, he was "ill-dressed," had bad hygiene and was "totally inside himself." She and other school staff worked with him to improve, but after weekends at home, he always came back to school unwashed and wearing dirty clothes.

Gifford's five months with the Zachs have transformed him, Erickson testified. He experienced "peace and quiet for the first time."

"He's a totally different person. If Michael is taken away from the Zachs, it will be a disservice to Michael," she said, choking up. "Please don't take him away from them."

Both foster parents said they questioned OCRP about procedures but denied pointing fingers at or being hostile toward caseworkers.

Carol Zach told the court that before Gifford's placement with them, he had a bed-wetting problem and frequently scratched his face so vigorously it left open wounds. Both issues cleared up immediately in his new home, she said, and he's become part of the family.

Zdenek Zach, the foster father, said Gifford has thrived since his placement.

"He came in a very scared teenager, absolutely unsure of himself," Zach said. With guidance, "he realized he can start to believe in himself and be a good citizen."

Judge Thomas Vale ruled in favor of the Zachs and ordered that an alternative option be explored for monitoring Gifford until his next court-ordered psychiatric evaluation for competency.