Family members, students, researchers, and legislators testify today in support of new legislation to establish a special commission on the history of state institutions for people with developmental and mental health issues.
Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, a handful of institutions founded in the mid-1800s expanded into a network of state hospitals, state schools, and farm colonies. While providing good care and services to some, institutions such as the Fernald School in Waltham also served as sites for medical experiments involving residents, experiments that today are recognized as gross violations of human rights.
By the 1970s, thousands of people with developmental or mental health challenges were housed in at least 27 large- and medium-sized institutions in the Commonwealth. The ’70s saw the burgeoning of awareness about civil rights and a spate of lawsuits over the treatment of residents, clients, and patients. What followed were a series of landmark rulings by federal district court judge Joseph Tauro that prompted significant improvements in the care provided, managed, and overseen by what is now the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services and the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. Yet comprehensive and consistent records and histories of these institutions are still unavailable.
“We live in a time of historic reckonings,” said State Senator Mike Barrett, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities. “With respect to Massachusetts citizens with developmental and mental health challenges, and as regards our better understanding of human rights and humane treatment, the past can be a guide — but only if we truly know it. This commission will add impetus to the acknowledgement and restoration of these hidden Massachusetts lives, to the same degree and in the same ways that we’re able to know about the lives of everyone else.”
The commission idea was inspired by a local initiative. In 2019, Barrett met with students and teachers at Waltham’s Gann Academy who had launched a project to research and write the capsule biographies of 298 people who had resided in state institutions in Waltham and Lexington and who, upon their deaths, were buried in graves that bore no names and were marked only by number.
“As a person with mental illness who was briefly committed twenty years ago, I am keenly aware that in another time, I would have spent my life in a state asylum instead of having the great privilege to teach at the Harvard Kennedy School,” said Alex Green, the teacher who led the effort at Gann Academy and an advocate of the bill. “Not a week passes without a former resident, employee, or family member reaching out to me in the desperate hope that they can find answers to the unsettled issues that remain in their lives. Now is the time for a state-supported commission, led by disabled people, to do just that, and I think that it will provide immeasurable benefit to helping understand this history.”
While nearly all the state’s large institutions have closed, there has not been a concerted and systematic effort to excavate their histories. Documents are scattered across state agencies. Former residents have rarely been asked to tell their stories. Family members face a maze of bureaucracy as they try to learn what happened to loved ones.
“The people that are going to sit on this commission are vitally important because they’re someone who lived there, a family member. We need these kinds of people to be the eyes and ears for all the people who lived in these institutions. We really haven’t had that before,” said Pat Vitkus, the wife of the late Donald Vitkus, who was a Vietnam combat veteran, born in Waltham, and incarcerated at Belchertown State School in the 1950s.
“Families have a right to find their loved ones’ records,” she said. “I know that Donald and his son searched for years before they could get all theirs, and those kinds of things should be readily available to someone who’s looking for them.”
The commission would seek to —
- Locate or better organize records and documents involving former state institutions and the individuals who lived in them;
- Make the records and documents available to former residents, their family members, and the general public, an effort that would be balanced by the protection of privacy;
- Identify the burial locations of residents who died in the care of the Commonwealth;
- Assess the likelihood of, and possible location of, unmarked graves at the site of former institutions;
- Collect statements and recollections from former residents; and
- Provide a “human rights framework” for understanding and assessing the state’s role in running the institutions.
Along with Barrett, who filed the bill in the Senate, State Representative Sean Garballey has filed the bill in the House of Representatives. More than dozen leading disability and historical advocacy groups have made the legislation a priority for this session.
“As a mother of two sons with autism and an advocate for the disability community, my work throughout the covid-19 crisis has amplified the already difficult uphill battle for equity. The Disability Commission bill will enable the Commonwealth to study the true history of the era of institutions. We need to learn from that history and honor those who were forgotten,” said Maura Sullivan, Executive Director of the Arc of Massachusetts.
“Progress toward equity and inclusion depends on our deeper understanding of those who lived through this period. The Arc of Massachusetts supports families who want to know about their loved ones who lived in segregation or were buried without names on their graves. We support the idea that people with disabilities should lead this effort. Being home to 27 institutions once in existence, this commission offers an opportunity for Massachusetts to provide a first of its kind, innovative model for memorialization, for the nation to follow.”
The hearing will be taking place virtually at 1 p.m. here: https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/3790