Monday, March 21, 2016

'The beast is dead.' Or so we thought, 22 years ago...

The state of Rhode Island 22 years ago this March closed the human warehouse known as the Ladd Center, an institution in Exeter, R.I., for people then labeled "retarded" -- people we today know as developmentally or intellectually disabled. Vulnerable people frequently without voice who, with some exceptions, particularly toward the end, were brutally mistreated for decades at Ladd.

The story below is the one I wrote on that triumphal day.

As you will read, after decades of abuse and neglect -- and following Providence Journal exposes, a federal lawsuit, and tireless advocacy -- one of the leaders of the movement could declare: "The beast is dead... Nobody will ever be able to throw away a human being again."

An enlightened state legislature with the determination of compassionate departmental leaders and taxpayers who supported millions of dollars in bonds to build a model system of community group homes and programs had prevailed. The powerless had found power; the voiceless, a voice. And we were all the better for it.

And now, in March 2016, comes word of Barbara A. Annis, a 70-year-old developmentally disabled woman in a state-run group home who died after a broken leg became infected and staff did not get her to a hospital until days later, when it was too late; when surely she had suffered as the infection that killed her intensified. A cruel history, tragically repeated; a system that has been allowed to fragment and decay. How wrong. Did we learn nothing? Do we now, again, believe some lives matter more than others? Read about the woman's death in the story I wrote. Read further developments, and of another investigation of alleged patient abuse at the state-run Zambarano Hospital.

So read, below, the story I wrote on the very final day of Ladd, 22 years ago this early spring, when triumph prevailed and the hope was that no person would ever again have to suffer the indignities of a heartless system... or die because of its neglect and abuse.

The Ladd Center in the 1970s. Residents spent hours like this, warehoused. What the camera didn't capture was worse.

The Ladd Center in the 1950s, when first Journal expose was published. You are welcome to compare to 1930s Germany.

FINAL DAY Ladd Center shuts down quietly
Publication Date: March 26, 1994  Page: A-01  Section: NEWS  Edition: ALL

At 12:35 p.m. yesterday, the last of five men was helped into a van outside a building at the Ladd Center, Rhode Island's institution for the retarded. It drove off, its passengers never to make Ladd home again.

After 86 years, Ladd was closed.

"The beast is dead," said Robert L. Carl Jr., the state official responsible as much as anyone for slaying it.

It was the end of an era that began in 1908 with hope for society's most vulnerable people - hope that had given way, by the 1960s and '70s, to scandal and shame. More than 4,500 people lived at Ladd over the course of its existence. No one will ever know how many suffered.

There was no ceremony for Ladd's last hours - no speeches, no champagne, only a quiet, emotional gathering of some two dozen people who battled for decades to build a better life for those who could not do it themselves.

Together, Ladd's final five residents spent 206 years in the institution. Now, like hundreds who left before them, they will shop on Saturdays, not lie naked in their own feces, as many did during the years of worst abuse. They will have their own rooms in their own homes, not be packed 50 to a back ward. They will bathe, not be hosed down.

"Nazi Germany killed these people," said Carl, who heads the Division of Developmental Disabilities, a branch of the state Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals, which ran Ladd. "Rhode Island made a commitment to treat them with dignity and respect."

"How do you find a word for this?" said James V. Healey, executive director of the Rhode Island Arc, which four decades ago began the battle to find alternatives to Ladd. Like Carl, Healey had tears in his eyes at 12:35 p.m. yesterday.

"I never lost faith," said Ladd's superintendent, George W. Gunther Jr., who left a lucrative career as an insurance executive 24 years ago to work for change from within, and who had vowed, on his promotion to the top job, to one day close the place. Gunther's daughter, Nancy, was at Ladd for many years.

Rhode Island joins New Hampshire and Vermont, which recently shut institutions, as the only states to serve people with developmental disabilities entirely in the community.

But Rhode Island declared its intention first: In July 1986, when former Gov. Edward D. DiPrete announced Ladd would be out of business within five years. Construction of group homes and centers for Ladd's remaining residents, more disabled than those who'd already left, took longer than expected.

Promises not kept

In 1907, when the fate of the retarded was prison and the poorhouse, a Massachusetts physician came south to try something more humane. Softspoken and generous, Dr. Joseph H. Ladd opened the Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded on a farm - where, he believed, his charges could lead satisfying lives in safety. In January 1908, eight retarded men moved in with him and his wife into an old farmhouse.

By 1913, more than 100 men and women lived at the institution. Men who were capable worked the farm, while women sewed and did housework, and children did what they could. In his annual report that year, Ladd outlined his plan to build a laundry, power plant, hospital and more dorms.

In 1925, the population of the institution, by then known euphemistically as the Exeter School, passed 500. Not all were retarded: Many were epileptic, sexually promiscuous or unemployed, sent away by doctors or judges seeking solutions to people they considered nuisances. Ladd believed that with the right treatment, some of Exeter's "high-grades" could be discharged, and a small number, less than 10 percent a year, were. For the rest, passage through life was marked only by the change of seasons.

Overcrowding, understaffing and insufficient funds contributed to worsening conditions in the 1950s and '60s, when the institution's population peaked at slightly more than 1,000. The parents who founded RIARC demanded that their retarded children be served in their communities, mostly in Greater Providence, not behind bars in the middle of 550 acres miles from where they lived. By the '70s, many believed Ladd had to close.

None had more conviction than Healey.

One day in 1976 while touring a back ward, he saw a woman naked on the floor with what he thought was a red ball against her naked bottom. It wasn't a ball, but her rectum - protruding out.

"That's just a prolapse," the supervisor said. "It falls out and we just push it back."

Healey's eyes met the woman's. She couldn't speak, but Healey imagined what she would have said if she could: "If you're an advocate, why do you let them do this to me?"

"It's a snakepit there," Healey said at a news conference he called a short while later.

But little happened for a year, until September 1977, when the Journal-Bulletin began a series of investigative pieces documenting neglect and abuse at Ladd. The paper found that fire protection was inadequate, residents routinely had teeth extracted without proper anesthetic, and doctors failed to diagnose broken arms, infections and diabetes. Because of bad care, the paper reported, some had died.

A state was shocked. Ladd had many dedicated employees, but their quiet contributions were lost in the ensuing controversy, which led to a federal suit by RIARC and the firing of the superintendent, Dr. John G. Smith, who had succeeded Dr. Ladd in 1956. In a short time, Gunther was promoted and Carl hired from Ohio, where he was known as an administrator who meant business, and who believed the future was in the community, not behind brick walls.

Even before the scandals of the '70s, Rhode Island had been moving away from Ladd. Voters in 1967 approved a $1.5 million bond for community centers, and in years to come would approve tens of millions more for group homes and other programs. As Gunther and Carl improved conditions for Ladd's remaining residents, they accelerated community development.

Last year, for the first time since 1913, the institution's population dropped below 100.

Yesterday, it hit zero.

Last day on ward

Jimmy Lassiter was up early on his last day at Ladd, which came a half-century after his first. Staff washed him, combed his hair, brushed his teeth, dressed him in black trousers, Notre Dame T-shirt and basketball shoes, and gave him his medications. Breakfast was Tang and oatmeal with sliced bananas. He ate with a spoon, and a Ladd pillowcase for a bib.

Lassiter was 9 years old when he was sent to Exeter, in January 1940. His mother had died in childbirth the summer before, leaving six children 8 and under. Jimmy was profoundly retarded and had a temper. He spoke only when angry, and only a word or two then. His father couldn't handle him.

A working farm had little use for a "low-grade," and so Jimmy spent much of his life on back wards. In recent years, as Ladd improved, he was prepared for life in a group home. After breakfast yesterday, he went to his classroom. His clothes were packed and an attendant mopped his old room. He ate lunch with his four friends and they were gone. Their new home is a group home in Hope Valley.

Many uses have been proposed for Ladd, including as the site of a corporate park, but no decision has been made for disposition of its more than 300 acres and 42 buildings, some beyond rehabilitation. (Ladd's farmhouse has been demolished, but the site where it stood is being preserved as a memorial, to be dedicated later this spring.)

All officials would promise yesterday is that Ladd will not be forgotten, nor will it ever come back.

As they reminisced about how long it took to get there, Gunther, Healey, Carl and others praised Ladd's employees, who rather than fight the closing, as colleagues in other states have, agreed to transfer to community homes run by the state. They also praised former Ladd residents, who proved to an initially skeptical public that they could live in neighborhoods, just like anyone else.

"Nobody," said Carl, "will ever be able to throw away a human being again."

* * *

CAPTION: LAST MEAL: With the aid of an attendant, two of the remaining five residents of the Ladd Center, Raymond Guarnieri, left, and Anthony Stanton, have breakfast before leaving for a group home.

Journal-Bulletin / KATHY BORCHERS

* * *

CAPTION: THE WAY IT WAS: A ward in the Ladd Center, jam-packed with beds, in 1973. The center was closed yesterday.

Journal-Bulletin files

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  1. I remember the Ladd Center very well in the mid 1960's during my rotation visit as part of the Child Psychiatry training. How depressing it was !

  2. Lie..Lie..Lie..I worked there in the 70's till it closed..You Mr Miller should be ashamed of yourself..I never heard any attendant call anyone retarded, we couldn't even call them kids Although Dr Ladd's words were "kids forever"..THOSE PICTURES WERE NOT TAKEN AT LADD in the 70's..All this article is Fake News..I couldn't even read it all as it wasn't anywhere near the truth..

    1. My aunt was head of nurse employee training at the RI state IMH. She spent quite a bit of her time helping rehabilitate the system. She saw how bad it was in the 60's and 70's when she was still just a nurse in training. What she saw there is the main reason why she dedicated the rest of her career to improving patient conditions so no it's not fake news.