Home > Uncategorized > DDS corporate providers and their allies once again attack the former Fernald Center with a selective account of its history

DDS corporate providers and their allies once again attack the former Fernald Center with a selective account of its history

Yet again, the former Fernald Developmental Center in Waltham is being targeted politically by corporate human services providers that are selectively focusing on the Center’s dark history prior to the 1980s.

Fernald may have been closed for the past seven years, but it is still proving to be as potent a target as ever for proponents of the privatization of care in the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) system.

As was the case last year, the Arc of Massachusetts and other provider-based groups have signed a petition and letter to Waltham Mayor Jeanette McCarthy, protesting an annual holiday light show currently underway on the Fernald campus.

This year, the providers have been joined by the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee (MHLAC), a legal advocacy entity located within the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Philip Kassel (no relation to this blog post writer), executive director of the MHLAC, wrote a letter on December 10 to a legislative commission on the status of persons with disabilities in which Kassel joined in the criticism of the light show as “disturbing and inappropriate.” Kassel described Fernald as as a place of “horrors” and “virulent dehumanization.”

Kassel’s letter further stated:

…residents with disabilities (at Fernald) were subjected to “scientific” experiments and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. Walter Fernald himself was a proponent of eugenics and forced sterilizations, which occurred at the institution. Students were fed radioactive oatmeal by esteemed Harvard and MIT professors in what they called research. And innocents were imprisoned in squalid conditions for much of their unhappy lives.

These things either occurred or were true of Fernald prior to the 1980s. But, as I stated in an emailed response to Kassel on December 16, significant changes were brought about at Fernald and in other institutions for persons with developmental disabilities from the 1980s onward. Those changes occurred as a result of class action litigation in the 1970s, which was overseen by the late U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro.

Judge Tauro enabled the creation of a new model of care in both the institutions and the community system in Massachusetts that required the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars.  After years of improvements, Tauro concluded in 1993 that this state now had “a system of care and habilitation that is probably second to none anywhere in the world.”

There is no mention in Kassel’s letter of Judge Tauro or of the changes he oversaw at Fernald and at other institutions for persons with developmental disabilities. There is similarly no mention of Tauro or those changes in the petition or letter to Mayor McCarthy.

I also noted in my message to Kassel that the experiments at Fernald on children that he referred to took place between 1946 and 1953. It is, of course, necessary to know and understand that awful period in the history of institutional care of the developmentally disabled in this country.

But, as I stated to Kassel, “focusing public attention solely on the history of Fernald from the 1940s through the 1960s, and even before that, overlooks the full history of Fernald.”

That selective focus, I noted, also overlooks the human price paid for deinstitutionalization from the 1980s onward of both persons with developmental disabilities and mental illness. That is because such a selective focus diverts discussion and inquiry from events that happened subsequent to the 1980s and from current matters affecting people with disabilities.

That is an erasure of history, I said in my message, and its effect has been the facilitation of the ongoing and unchecked privatization of care in the DDS system, in particular.

In a response to my message, Kassel said he disagreed that the reforms at Fernald from the 1908s onward should necessarily be considered in discussing “the sordid history” of the institution.

Kassel said he also disagrees with our assessment of the history of deinstitutionalization. “If there are failures (with  deinstitutionalization),” he stated, “they may be attributed to inadequate efforts to replace places like Fernald with community-based alternatives.”

In a response to Kassel’s response, I said we agree that the efforts to replace Fernald and other institutions with community-based alternatives have been inadequate. I noted that in testimony in 2018 to a legislative committee, Nancy Alterio, executive director of the Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC), stated that abuse and neglect of persons in the DDS system had increased 30 percent in the previous five years, and had reached epidemic proportions.

Alterio’s testimony came long after the state had begun to rely primarily on privatized, community-based group homes for residential care of persons with developmental disabilities, and long after the state had phased out and closed all but two state-run developmental centers comparable to Fernald.

So, in our view, I said, deinstitutionalization of people with developmental disabilities has been far from a success. And that failure hasn’t been due to a lack of funding. DDS’s corporate provider-run group home line item in the state budget (5920-2000) is now well over $1.3 billion — an amount that is 90 percent higher than what it was a decade earlier.

I added in my second response to Kassel that rather than investing that increased funding over the years in adequate wages and training of direct-care workers in the community-based system, the providers have enriched their own executives. In a survey we conducted in 2015, we found that more than 600 executives of providers in the DDS system in the state were receiving some $100 million a year in salaries and other compensation.

In fact, decades after closures have occurred of a significant portion of the institutional system for people with developmental disabilities around the country, it is now in community-based group home settings that abuse, neglect, and warehouse-like conditions appear to have become a problem of epidemic proportions. (See these multi-part exposes starting in 2011 by The New York Times, in 2013 by The Hartford Courant, and in 2016 by The Chicago Tribune.)

Our concerns remain over proposed commission on history of Fernald and other state facilities

Meanwhile, as the debate continues over the Fernald light show, legislation is pending in the Legislature that would establish a state commission (S.1257and H. 2090) to study the history of Fernald and other similar institutions. We are seeking changes in the language of the bill to ensure that the commission tells the accurate and complete story of those places.

I said to Kassel that we assume that the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee supports this legislation, and we would hope the organization similarly desires that the story of Fernald be told accurately and completely.

In our view, the effort to revoke the permit for the light show at Fernald simply serves the purpose of those who have a vested interest in overlooking Fernald’s complete history.

  1. tom rickels
    December 21, 2021 at 12:56 pm

    Okay, Mass. wins the crazy war over Ohio! I am attaching a link to a summary of the DOJ vs. RI DD. I think the DOJ is showing RI didnt have to have a physical # to how many people got employment and that RI is misinterpreting the Decree.

    http://olmstead-ddnews.org/olmstead-updates/2021/9/13/q8h49i11yik56t30cci7nfovk6abl0

    Tom Rickels

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lucy Leyland
    December 22, 2021 at 8:35 am

    Perhaps Philip Kassel should talk to some guardians of former Fernald residents?
    Their story might not fit his narrative, but they are ones with the right to tell that story, not Kassel.

    I don’t believe any family member would deny the “sordid” history of Fernald. However it would be unconscionable not to fully acknowledge the work of Judge Tauro, The Fernald
    League, Cofar, VOR and of course all of the faithful caregivers.

    My brother lived at Fernald for over fifty years. We were grieved by his passing but relieve that he could no longer be a pawn of corporate privatization.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. December 22, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    It is so easy to just keep writing about Fernald and things that happened so long ago.  But we lived it.  Families filed a class action lawsuit “Ricci v Okin”, and with the ongoing help of Judge Tauro, conditions at Fernald and the other facilities were dramatically improved, and the community system was developed.  When Fernald finally closed, most residents and their families chose to have their loved ones move to the Wrentham Developmental Center, yup – another facility – and join a new home filled with old friends, familiar staff members, clinicians, and a focus on health, safety, strong programming, and  the happiness of each individual – in short – a true community.  Sorry Philip Kassel, you don’t know what you’re talking about, but we sure do.  Bring on the Christmas lights and celebrate the evolution of the Fernald Center and all of the people who were happy to call it home. 

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Patricia Vitkus
    December 25, 2021 at 11:23 am

    My late husband grew up at Belchertown State School and it appears to me that all of these facilities have one aim in common…forget they ever existed or the horrors these individuals like my husband endured. Most of these facilities are burial grounds for many individuals. So, as individuals seek to put up light displays and such, where is the honor and remembrance of the people who suffered there? Just because it has improved does not in any way excuse the abuse that occurred there. Pick another place. I will NEVER stop fighting for Donald and his fellow “inmates” as he called them for their rightful remembrance….NEVER FORGET.

    Liked by 1 person

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