One of my first big stories as State Capitol reporter for the Star Tribune chronicled a push for the state to apologize formally for mistreatment of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled in state hospitals. The catalog of sins against Minnesota’s most vulnerable citizens spanning decades was horrific – forced labor, medical experimentation, involuntary sterilization, shock treatments, lobotomies and more – and my article landed on Page 1A.
That was in 1997. Despite the publicity, or maybe because of it, some legislators immediately developed cold feet, worried that an official apology to tens of thousands of state hospital residents living and dead could spark a barrage of lawsuits for damages. The proposed legislative resolution quietly disappeared from the agenda.
Fast forward 13 years. Last month, the Legislature finally approved a somewhat watered-down apology. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed it, somewhat reluctantly, saying that state hospital workers “in most cases took actions based in good faith and the scientific understanding of the time.” The resolution gained bipartisan support only after legislative sponsors removed references to medical professionals and softened some sweeping statements of victimization.
Still, the resolution notes that state hospital patients “were portrayed by some as subhuman organisms” and that “Minnesotans once viewed this institutional treatment as acceptable … but now recognize how wrong [it] was.”
Interestingly, for years until now, the state wouldn’t put its mouth where its money was. Starting shortly after the 1997 weasel-out, legislators have poured $900,000 into a companion project promoted by apology advocates – marking by name the graves of 13,000 patients originally buried on state hospital property with only numbered headstones. So far, that has paid for 5,600 new stones.
“We’ve finished all the work at Anoka, Cambridge, Moose Lake and Willmar,” said Rick Cardenas of Advocating Change Together, a lobbying group for the disabled. “We’ll finish Hastings this year.” Still left are thousands of graves at Faribault, Rochester and St. Peter, plus Fergus Falls, where access to the shutdown hospital grounds has proved a problem.
Despite ACT’s continual efforts, the apology didn’t even get another hearing at the Capitol until last year. Finally, this year, after states from South Carolina to California issued similar resolutions with no untoward results, “people just realized there’s nothing there to sue,” Cardenas said.
It’s about time. As many state hospitals have closed amid new understandings about care of the disabled, it’s important to remember and publicly disavow the mistakes of the past, lest we repeat them going forward.