by Marion Gwizdala
From the Editor: Marion Gwizdala is president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users. This report is based on correspondence between a female guide dog user, the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, and the author. The consumer’s name has been changed to protect her from bias during the application and selection process to other guide-dog training programs.
When Brenda received her Fidelco guide dog on April 5, 2010, it ended a nearly three-year wait. Although this supposedly trained dog that she was expected to trust to guide her safely came with a few out-of-harness behavioral issues like jumping on people, scrounging for food, and having accidents on carpet, Brenda quickly became attached to her and agreed to work to resolve the problems. Working together actually made the bond between them stronger. Brenda reports that she fully engaged in the rigorous training program and as a result felt new independence and confidence. When she signed the agreement opting for ownership of her guide dog after six months, she says that she never expected that a school whose mission is “promoting increased independence to men and women who are blind by providing them with the highest quality guide dogs” would come to her home and reclaim the dog without explanation.
According to her trainer, Brenda was a competent, skilled guide dog handler. Under date of June 22, 2010, Rebecca Cook, placement specialist for Fidelco Guide Dogs, who trained Brenda and her guide dog, wrote Brenda the following email:
I have to say, I am very proud of you!!!!!! It sounds like you are really getting out there! I am so glad! You are doing the correct thing by correcting her and saying “leave it” then “forward.” What you could do is practice the "leave it" command under different circumstances...meaning practice at home, the grocery store, etc. That way she is remembering on a daily basis what "leave it" actually means! You could put food on the ground or a toy, have her on leash, allow her to start to go for it, then tell her "leave it" and have her target your hand/sit/down, whatever. You could also do it say in a grocery store, allow her to sniff something, then ask her to "leave it" target/sit/down, etc. Same thing with [your daughter], let [your dog] say hi and interact, then ask her to "leave it" target/sit/down...I feel real bad that you are losing so much money. I hope everything works out. I'm really sorry I won't be able to see you this time around, but I will definitely be looking forward to taking you to NYC and Boston when you come to Connecticut!!!! We will work that dog like crazy! Late September should work; let's just keep in touch regarding the timing. I think I have vacation the last week in September already scheduled (going to Virginia Beach again). But we will definitely work something out. I will call you when I have a chance to really talk! Take care, grandma, (almost)!!!!!
This message, written a full two months after completion of Brenda’s training, indicates that the trainer believes she is doing well and is diligent in her work. There is no concern that her guide dog is unsafe, and the tone of the message is certainly friendly.
At one point during their travels Brenda and her dog passed by a neighborhood property with automatic sprinklers that activated just as they were passing. The sudden shower startled the dog, and she began exhibiting apprehension when approaching and passing this property. The dog also began to generalize this apprehension to other places where sprinklers were running, as well as in the presence of operating fountains and infinity pools. Brenda made several calls to Fidelco seeking direction and assistance, but the issue persisted. Fidelco trainers finally decided to visit Brenda and promised they would work with her in her community for five days. If the issue was not resolved, they said they might need to bring the dog back to Fidelco for more intensive training.
Becky Cook began the follow-up training on October 20. Brenda and Becky worked together for about nine hours. At the end of the first day of training, Brenda reports that Becky told her that she thought that her guide dog “had lost none of her skills” and that Brenda “had become an expert handler.” She said that they would continue training in the morning and that Brenda should make a list of places where they could train the next day.
When Becky arrived the next morning, she told Brenda she was taking her dog back to Connecticut. Brenda says she was dismayed and asked for an explanation. Becky would say only that this was what she had been told to do. Brenda continued to ask for an explanation, and Becky said she was “only following orders.” Becky leashed up Brenda’s dog, loaded her into the car, and drove away.
“I felt betrayed,” Brenda told me. “I trusted Becky. If I had known she was going to take my dog away, I would never have let her into my house!”
Since the day her dog was taken from her, Brenda has made numerous attempts to get information about her guide dog. She spoke with Eliot Russman, Fidelco’s chief executive officer, on October 22, and he promised she would receive regular updates about her guide dog’s progress. On October 26 Mr. Russman wrote the following email to Brenda:
As promised when we concluded our telephone conversation this past Friday evening, I tried to call you a few minutes ago with an update about [your guide dog]. Unfortunately, the voice-mailbox is full and would not accept any more messages.
[Your dog] is in good spirits in the Fidelco kennel. She is being evaluated daily by our director of training. She is being exercised. I will be able to provide you with an updated report in about a week or so, and I will plan to call you next Monday, November 1, with any available information.
In advance, thank you for your patience,
Eliot D. Russman
CEO and Executive Director
Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, Inc.
"Share the Vision"
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T
Because Brenda knew she was going to be unavailable most of November 1, she says that she telephoned Mr. Russman on October 29. She was told he was out of the office. Brenda left a message for him, letting him know of her unavailability and requesting that he call her early in the morning or later in the day on November 1. Anxious for word about her guide dog on that day, Brenda reports that she called Fidelco at 8:00 a.m. and once more in the afternoon. Both times she was told that he was unavailable, and both times she left him a message.
Mr. Russman returned Brenda’s call later that evening and began explaining that her guide dog “had been evaluated by the director of training and other Fidelco trainers, and they have determined that the dog is an inappropriate guide dog match” for her. In light of the seven months of successful work and the praise she had received from Becky Cook on her “expert” handling ability just a few days earlier, Brenda reports that she felt very confused. She asked Mr. Russman what guidelines had been used to determine that they were an “inappropriate match.” She says that Mr. Russman replied, “I don’t have to answer you, and I decline to answer that question.”
Brenda offered to travel to Connecticut at her own expense to work with Fidelco’s director of training to demonstrate their ability as a team. Brenda says that Mr. Russman told her that this would not be a “fair assessment” since her guide dog was familiar with the area around Fidelco. When she offered to be evaluated in New York City or Boston, Mr. Russman again asserted that that would not be a “fair assessment” either, since her dog had been trained in those places as well. Brenda reports that she continued to press Mr. Russman for an opportunity to prove to Fidelco that she was a good handler and that she and her dog were a good match, but he became indignant and said, “I am the CEO, and I am Fidelco. All my decisions are the final word!”
Brenda says that she pressed further for an explanation and was again told, “I don’t have to answer your questions, and I decline to answer your questions.” When she inquired about future plans for her guide dog, he told her that her dog was no longer her concern. Brenda reports that Mr. Russman finally said, “I don’t have to answer your questions! I decline to answer your questions! You are keeping me from spending time with my wife! How dare you! This conversation is over!” and hung up on her, even though he was the one who had placed the call.
Brenda says that nothing in Mr. Russman’s email message or at any time during their conversation made any direct or implied statement expressing concern about the safety of the dog’s work. The decision to remove the dog seemed to Brenda to have been arbitrary. The rationale for removing the dog is hard to understand given the statements of Becky Cook who characterized their work in her email as “expert.” In the weeks since this decision, Brenda has made a number of telephone calls and each time has been told that Mr. Russman was in a meeting. She has left messages for him each time but has received no return calls. Unable to speak with Mr. Russman by telephone, Brenda sent him a letter by mail asking for an explanation of why her guide dog had been taken from her; what Fidelco’s plans for the dog were; and, if the dog was to be retired, could it be returned to her? She further requested a replacement dog from Fidelco and offered to travel to Connecticut, at her own expense, for training, but she reports that she received no reply to her written inquiry.
Frustrated with Fidelco’s lack of response, she contacted the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore and was referred to me as the president of the guide dog division. I secured a written and signed release of information from Brenda authorizing Fidelco to discuss information from her file with me and began telephoning and writing to Eliot Russman myself. I made three telephone calls to him at various times of the day over a three-week period, and each time I was told that he was in a meeting. I did receive email messages from him after leaving voicemail messages. His first email message to me, dated December 29, 2010, read:
I just received an email from our office regarding your telephone message of earlier this morning (below). I'm out of town for a few days and will be returning to the office the week of January 03, 2011.
I am delighted to chat with you about the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation and our organization's fifty years of experience and expertise in breeding, training, and placing German shepherd guide dogs. We can discuss, at length, Fidelco's client application process, our Selection Committee review process and our in-community placement program that Fidelco pioneered in the United States over twenty-five years ago. We can also discuss our recent accreditation renewal by the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF), successfully completed during August 2010. And we can discuss our best-practices client service program, along with our annual client team review process, designed to insure the safety of all our guide dog/human partner teams.
What I cannot, and will not, discuss with you is anything regarding Fidelco's clients: past, present, or future. I'm certain that, given your position and experience with the National Association of Guide Dog Users/NFB, you can appreciate client confidentiality, HIPAA, and the like.
Perhaps a good next step would be for you to send along some times that are convenient for us to have a telephone conversation next week.
Happy holidays and warm regards,
That same day I replied to Mr. Russman:
Thank you very much for your message. Though I would be open to discussing all of the topics you mention in your message, I am well aware of Fidelco's history. What I am interested in discussing with you, however, is Fidelco's ownership agreement and its practical application, in general, and the issues raised by Brenda, in particular. As president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU) and a professional in the mental health field, I am aware of issues of confidentiality and privacy. It is for this reason that I have instructed Brenda to send a signed release allowing you to discuss her case with me. Once you have received this release, please contact me so we can attempt to amicably resolve this issue. My contact information is below my signature.
On January 11, 2011, having received the signed release of information from Brenda authorizing Fidelco to discuss her case with me and not having received a reply to my email message, I telephoned Mr. Russman again and was again told that he was in a meeting and was transferred to his voicemail, where I left a message for him to call me to discuss Brenda’s case. I received an email message the following day advising me that, due to severe weather, Fidelco would be shut down. I replied to this message, saying that he should have received Brenda’s signed authorization and requesting a telephone call from him to discuss the issue. On January 20 I received an email reply giving me two dates and times to “chat about Fidelco.”
I met with Eliot Russman by telephone on January 24, 2011. Julie Gamble, Fidelco’s chief operating officer, was also on the call. Mr. Russman inquired about anyone else on the call with us, and I said that no one was with me. I asked if he was in receipt of the release of information form signed by Brenda authorizing Fidelco to discuss her case with us, and he indicated that he was. I told him my purpose was to attempt an amicable resolution of the issue. Mr. Russman advised me that he could not discuss Brenda’s case with me due to “privacy and confidentiality.”
I again confirmed that he was in receipt of the release of information form that Brenda had signed, and he advised me that it was not adequate since it had been neither witnessed nor notarized. I asked if he would discuss the issue if he had such a witnessed, notarized form, and he did not answer. I asked if Fidelco had a form that was appropriate and acceptable for this purpose, but he did not answer, repeatedly citing issues of privacy and confidentiality. I have no doubt that Mr. Russman was certain Brenda had authorized Fidelco to discuss this situation with me in light of her numerous attempts to do so herself. I am equally sure that her file at Fidelco contains a number of signed forms that the school had accepted as including authentic signatures, none of which had been witnessed or notarized.
Mr. Russman asked if I had read the Fidelco ownership agreement. He referred me to “section d, as in dog” that states, "I agree that Fidelco may repossess the dog in the event I do not comply with this agreement, in the event I do not provide proper and humane care for the dog as determined by Fidelco in its sole judgment, or for any other reason as determined by Fidelco in its sole and absolute discretion. In such event title to the dog will revert to Fidelco automatically at Fidelco's option." I said that I had read the agreement and, though I was not an attorney, did not consider it an ownership agreement—an opinion later confirmed by legal counsel.
For nearly a half hour I pressed Mr. Russman to explain why the dog was repossessed, and he was steadfast in his refusal to answer my questions. He finally did say that the dog had been repossessed “for safety reasons.” When I asked for clarification of the safety issues, he reverted to statements about privacy and confidentiality.
Mr. Russman then advised me that I did not have all of the information. He asserted that I needed to read a missing document. I asked him for more information about this document, and he told me I needed to talk to Brenda. I asked him if he could be a little more specific, and he refused, repeating that I needed to read a missing document, emphasizing the phrase by repeating the words slowly in a tone that felt very condescending. “If it is missing,” I asked, “how can I get it?” He again said that I needed to get it from Brenda. I later asked Brenda if she knew what this missing document might be, but she had no idea.
At the end of the conversation, Mr. Russman asserted that he could not share information about Fidelco’s clients, but Brenda’s father was not their client, so he felt “comfortable sharing the details of a long and friendly conversation” with him. He reported that, at the end of this conversation, her father had said, “If I were you, I would not give my daughter another guide dog, either!” Mr. Russman said this was evidence that the consumer was not being truthful with me. He said that even her own father didn’t support her. I later spoke with Brenda’s father, and, when I repeated what Mr. Russman had told me about their conversation, and he replied that he was a liar. He further said that the telephone call to Mr. Russman had not been long, lasting only a few minutes; was not a conversation since Mr. Russman had said very little; and was by no means friendly.
Before ending the call with Mr. Russman, I told him that the blind community is a close-knit group of people who share information freely. I said I had heard that Fidelco had treated other consumers similarly. He replied by quoting Mark Twain, who said, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated!” Of course, rumors remain rumors only until they are confirmed.
On January 25 Mr. Russman sent me an email message summarizing his version of our telephone meeting. He wrote in part, “Thank you for your time yesterday and for the opportunity to discuss various aspects of the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation program with Julie and me.” He went on to describe my affect as “frustrated by Fidelco's adherence to a strict confidentiality policy regarding our client information.”
On January 26 I replied to him, objecting to his characterization of the facts. I said, “Your unwillingness to discuss Brenda’s case with me in spite of her signed release giving you permission to do so only causes me to wonder what you are hiding and your motivation for doing so.”
On January 29 I circulated an email message seeking other consumers who had been treated by Fidelco in what they considered to be an arbitrary or unjust manner. Within twelve hours I had heard from three people with similar stories. On February 17 I heard about two more cases. In each instance those responding reported that Fidelco had removed their guide dogs with no explanation.
I have received several calls from Fidelco consumers defending Fidelco. One caller told me he received his second Fidelco guide dog in 2005 and had nothing but praise for them. I replied that the Fidelco of 2005 is not the same Fidelco with which we are dealing today.
I want to assure Fidelco consumers that the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of Guide Dog Users are not engaged in an anti-Fidelco initiative. No matter which training program blind people choose, we should have the expectation that we will be treated fairly and with dignity and respect. If, for some reason, the program needs to take action against a consumer, it should not be arbitrary and “at the sole and absolute discretion” of the program. We agree that cases occur in which a dog needs to be removed because of neglect, abuse, or safety issues; however, this decision should be based upon objective, real evidence of such issues.
I appreciate the dedication Fidelco consumers have demonstrated by their telephone calls and email messages of support for Fidelco. I would also like to say that, for every message of support, I have received two messages expressing concern. I, too, am very loyal to the program from which I received my guide dog. At the same time, if I had heard that they were treating consumers the way Mr. Russman and his staff seem to have treated these people, I would be the first to stand up and demand a reasonable explanation and accountability for their actions.
The time for custodial and paternalistic treatment of the blind in the guide dog movement is long past. We have the right to direct our lives and be free of the type of intimidation Brenda and the others seem to have experienced from Fidelco. Time was when Fidelco was well respected as an innovator in the guide dog movement. This respect is rapidly eroding. As consumers we are their primary stakeholders. I urge you to join me in resisting the regressive policies and practices employed by the current Fidelco administration that are contradictory to the basic tenets of human rights and compromise the confidence of blind consumers.The National Federation of the Blind will continue to advocate on behalf of the consumers who request our assistance. We urge you to join with us, making our voice louder and strengthening our ability to forge a positive direction for the blind. I believe the result will be a return to the quality services and sound reputation for which Fidelco has been known.