Home > Uncategorized > Senate budget amendment for commission on history of state schools continues to raise concerns of bias against state care

Senate budget amendment for commission on history of state schools continues to raise concerns of bias against state care

In what appears to be an end run around the legislative committee process, the state Senate last month approved an amendment to state budget legislation that would establish a state commission to study the history of institutional care of persons with developmental and other cognitive disabilities.

But as is the case with proposed legislation still in committee to establish the commission, the Senate amendment does not make it clear that the proposed commission would acknowledge major improvements since the 1980s in care and conditions in the state’s developmental centers or Intermediate Care Facilities (ICFs).

We have previously raised concerns about the legislation to establish the commission (S.1257, H.2090), which has been in the committee process for more than a year.

Given that the House did not adopt a similar budget provision to establish the commission, the proposal will be subject to a House-Senate conference committee that is currently meeting on the Fiscal Year 2023 state budget.

The Senate budget amendment addresses some concerns we previously raised about the proposed commission legislation, including language that indicates a bias against the state’s two remaining developmental centers – the Wrentham Developmental Center and the Hogan Regional Center in Danvers.

We do support efforts to study the history of the former state schools in Massachusetts for persons with developmental disabilities. Toward that end, we support proposed legislation to open up all historical state records to public inspection (S.2009, H.3150). But we want to ensure that the proposed commission considers the full history of these institutions, not just the darkest parts of that history prior to the 1980s.

Our concern is that proponents of further deinstitutionalizaton and privatization in the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) system could use the commission to call for the closures of the Wrentham and Hogan centers, and potentally other state-run residential facilities.

As we have pointed out many times, Wrentham and Hogan today provide state-of-the-art care, and are closely tied to their surrounding communities.

Budget amendment would provide four seats for residents and family members at Wrentham and Hogan

In one major improvement over the proposed legislation in committee, the Senate budget amendment would give residents and family members of the Hogan and Wrentham centers four out of what appear to be 16 seats on the commission.

But even in the Senate amendment, the makeup of the commission appears to still be largely dominated by opponents of the ICFs.

Also troubling is that pro-deinstitutionalization organizations such as the Arc of Massachusetts would specifically appoint at least three members of the commission. Meanwhile, the Hogan and Wrentham members would be appointed by the governor, who has also been a supporter of deinstitutionalization and the privatization of public services.

Commission proponent’s op-ed focuses on dark and early period of Fernald Center’s history

It is also troubling that some key proponents of the commission have continued to publicly express largely negative views of the history of the state schools without mentioning the significant upgrades that occurred starting in the 1980s in those institutions.

In discussing the Senate budget amendment in an op-ed in The Boston Globe on June 7, Alex Green, a major proponent of the commission, focused on the darkest years in the history of the state facilities in Massachusetts. Green specifically noted the connection of the former Fernald Center, in particular, to the eugenics movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Eugenics has been correctly characterized as a “scientifically erroneous and immoral theory of ‘racial improvement’ and ‘planned breeding.'” It gained popularity during the early 20th century.

In protests Green has organized against Fernald, and in petitions to Waltham Mayor Jeanette McCarthy, Green has similarly focused exclusively on  human rights abuses at Fernald in the first half of the 20th century. The Arc and other advocacy organizations have signed on to those petitions.

The early history of Fernald and the other state schools in Massachusetts is certainly a deeply troubling one. And the man for whom the institution was later named — Walter E. Fernald — was initially an active proponent of eugenics laws that were being adopted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the U.S. 

But by the 1920s, even Walter Fernald had come to reject the principles of eugenics, andbecame a supporter of community placement…” for persons with developmental disabilities, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The commission legislation does not specify that the commission would examine the history of Fernald subsequent to Judge Tauro’s involvement

We have repeatedly objected to the commission legislation on the grounds that it doesn’t specify that the commission would consider the full history of the state schools.

The improvements at Fernald and the other institutions were undertaken as a result of the intervention of the late U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro. Tauro noted those improvements when he disengaged from his oversight of a landmark consent decree case in 1993. He wrote that the improvements had “taken people with mental retardation from the snake pit, human warehouse environment of two decades ago, to the point where Massachusetts now has a system of care and habilitation that is probably second to none anywhere in the world.”

The Senate budget amendment provides little specificity as to the historical focus of the commission. It does, however, contain this fairly convoluted sentence, which raises a number of questions about the commission’s focus. The sentence states that the commission will:

…design a framework for public recognition of the commonwealth’s guardianship of residents with disabilities throughout history, which may include, but shall not be limited to, recommendations for memorialization and public education on the history and current state of the independent living movement, deinstitutionalization and the inclusion of people with disabilities. (my emphasis)

Given the commission will be largely dominated by organizations in favor of deinstitutionalization, we are concerned any such study of that issue may be biased.

It is also curious that  the history and current state of the independent living movement and deinstitutionalization would be included in the commission’s charge, given the subject of the commission is the history of state institutions.

The Senate amendment doesn’t define the “independent living movement.” Also, a complete study of just deinstitutionalization would take the effort of a separate commission in itself.

In addition, we think it is unwise for the budget conference committee to adopt the commission idea as a budget provision. This is an idea that needs to work its way through the checks and balances of the committee process.

As part of that committee process, the concerns we’ve raised about the makeup and possible bias of the commission still need to be addressed. At the least, we think language should be added to the proposed legislation stating that the commission will examine the complete history of the state’s institutional facilities.

The full history of the state institutions for persons with cognitve disabilities in Massachusetts starts with the founding of those facilities, and it continues to the present day.

  1. Mitchell Sikora
    June 20, 2022 at 10:18 pm

    COFAR blog about the proposed commission accurately emphasizes the enormous upgrade of the Massachusetts ICFs by the federal district court litigation of the 1970s and 1980s.

    Liked by 1 person

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