Minnesota: Saying “sorry” for treatment of persons with disabilities

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Manny Steinman was only a child during the eight years he spent at Faribault State Hospital, but some things he’ll never forget.


He remembers the kind teachers, counselors and other staff who cared for him, as well as the friends he made before leaving the facility in 1968. Steinman, who has bipolar disorder, also recalls unpleasant times during his stay: He required stitches after a night watchman hit him over the head for a bathroom accident Steinman couldn’t control. 


“I never got an apology for it,” he said.


More than 40 years later, Steinman is hoping he’ll finally get an apology – and not just for a specific incident. He is among the people backing HF1680, a resolution from the Legislature apologizing to the tens of thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities and mental illnesses who were committed to state hospitals. The resolution acknowledges ways in which some patients’ quality of life was diminished, including subjection to frontal lobotomies, isolation and medical experiments. The resolution also recognizes the painful decisions that faced parents like the Steinmans, who were forced to choose between institutionalizing their child or providing all of his required care themselves.


Sponsored by Rep. Karen Clark (DFL-Mpls), the bill was approved by the House Health Care and Human Services Policy and Oversight Committee March 11 and awaits action by the full House. A companion, SF1135, sponsored by Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), awaits action by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.


“It would be great if you could pass a few simple words: ‘I am sorry for the treatment (you) received,” said Carol Robinson, a board member for Advocating Change Together, a St. Paul-based disability rights organization. “It would mean a lot to us.”


Minnesota’s state hospitals were created by the Legislature in the late 1800s as a way to provide lifelong care for people with disabilities. Following the opening of the St. Peter Asylum for the Insane in 1866, nearly a dozen facilities were established to house and treat adults with mental illness, developmental disabilities, alcoholism and epilepsy.


By the 1960s, new drugs and treatment methods, coupled with advocacy by disability rights groups, prompted lawmakers to consider new ways of service delivery. Over the next three decades, policymakers developed an approach that allowed people with disabilities to receive services while living in their communities. Large institutional facilities closed in the 1990s and clients were relocated to adult foster homes and other community-based arrangements.


Earlier this month, the Department of Human Services announced a plan to redesign services for people with mental illness. The redesign, which would close or transform several current state facilities, would also result in new psychiatric care centers statewide.


‘Should not have happened’


Supporters of the legislative apology say the measure is long overdue. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum sponsored similar legislation as a state representative in the late 1990s, but withdrew her bill after amendments on the House floor threatened to water down the language. Opponents feared a formal apology from the Legislature would prompt former patients or their families to sue the state, something that could happen with or without the bill, said Rick Cardenas, co-director of ACT. Many states have issued apologies, not only for institutionalization in general, but for specific practices like those listed in the Minnesota bill, Cardenas said. He does not know of other states being taken to court over their apologies.


Other critics of the McCollum bill said they felt it was a slap in the face to former employees of state hospitals. Cardenas doesn’t see it that way.


“In no way is this to blame the employees of those institutions at that time,” he said. “However, it was a policy of the Legislature, of the government, to allow those sorts of treatments to happen.”


Public officials also played a role in demonizing people with disabilities and mental illness, said Luther Granquist, a retired attorney whose successful class-action suit on behalf of people with mental retardation in the 1970s contributed to the closing of state hospitals. In a 1925 speech to state officials, the superintendent of the Faribault facility described what he called “the menace of the feeble-minded.”


“He basically said these people are a menace, we need to confine them,” Granquist said. Minnesota lawmakers, fearful that mental illness and disabilities were hereditary, required female patients at the Faribault facility to be sterilized before they were discharged, a practice that continued through the late 1940s.


Granquist disputes a third objection to the legislative apology: that it would lead to countless apologies to other groups – American Indians, for example – that were also discriminated against by state policies. Those apologies are probably appropriate, Granquist said.


“We have, as a nation and as a state, done some really horrendous things… We have failed to meet human need and been demeaning to people in a manner that should not have happened.”


Members of ACT, most of whom have a disability, hope Clark’s bill will help prevent “demeaning” treatment indefinitely. Her legislation includes not only an apology, but a commitment from the Legislature to provide future assistance to people with disabilities. Cardenas sees this provision as especially important in light of looming budget cuts to health and human services.


“I think with some of the cuts that we’re looking at in this legislative session and probably next legislative session, future Legislatures will be apologizing for the treatment that people seem to be facing at this time,” he said.


Remembering With Dignity


A disability rights group backing the apology bill is also working to honor Minnesotans who died in state hospitals.


Advocating Change Together estimates nearly 13,000 people who died in state hospitals since the late-1800s were buried in anonymous graves on hospital property. Grave markers took the form of concrete cylinders, metal stakes or wooden stakes inscribed only with a number, said ACT co-director Rick Cardenas. To members of ACT, the shoddy markers are a reminder of how people with disabilities were denied basic human rights and dignity.


So in the mid-1990s, ACT teamed up with other advocacy groups to create “Remembering With Dignity,” an effort to replace the anonymous markers with personalized ones. As part of the project, ACT obtains lists of patient names and numbers for each facility, matches the numbers with corresponding graves, and orders new nameplates for each patient, listing dates of birth and death. The project has received intermittent funding from the Legislature over the past several years; a $125,000 appropriation is included in this year’s bonding law.


Remembering With Dignity has restored more than 5,600 graves at facilities including St. Peter, Hastings, Anoka and Cambridge, with the goal of addressing all of them by 2015. Some of the participants, like ACT board member Manny Steinman, are intimately familiar with the property where they’re working. Steinman, who lived at Faribault State Hospital as a child in the early-1960s, went back for the first time as part of the restoration project.