Chapter 2: Early Career, Parent Reaction to Conditions at Polk State School and Hospital
08:15:35:25 - 08:16:15:25
Lisa: Marsha you said you were working with children with intellectual disabilities. Were you aware of the growing parent movement in Pennsylvania when you were doing it?
Marsha: It was not in Elk County. That was not the case. This was a segregated preschool and I don't think that the families at that time were talking really; 1973 were not really thinking a great deal about their children's future. I mean they were, at that point, one, two, and three year olds. I think the families were much more focused on just getting over the fact that they had a child with disabilities.
08:16:16:15 - 08:16:49:20
Lisa: Thank you. You graduated I believe in 1973 from school?
Marsha: Correct and then went on to pre-school. Came to Pittsburgh in mid 1974 and was really fortunate to have come under the wing of the department of public welfare which at that point of time was working very, very hard in western Pennsylvania to bring people home from Polk Center.
08:16:49:17 - 08:19:43:25
Lisa: And I do want to you ask you a little bit more about your work with the department of public of welfare but... yes in 1973 it was a time of huge public outcry about the conditions of Polk and I wonder if you can tell me a little bit about what those conditions were.
Marsha: Having visited Polk many times I was astonished the first time that I went on to a ward and saw just bed after bed after bed after bed, very little space in between, perhaps as many as 40 individuals living in a communal bedroom. People were not well clothed. There was a little pre-school for infants who had been born at Polk. Folks would talk with this openly about having just been punished and having to scrub floors. It was just shocking to me. It was shocking to me to see the conditions in which people were living and I, of course, reflectively thought back to my grandmother. We were never allowed to visit her on a ward and were those the conditions in which she had lived for most of her adult life? Individuals would just come up to you, almost like beggars wanting attention, wanting a hug. It was, as a young professional, it was shocking to me. That's all I can say. I couldn't believe the circumstances. Went up there frequently. This was after, of course, my colleagues and mentors at the ARC had blown the roof off the place, literally, through their visits, through their work with the media, to expose the conditions. Folks like Gene Isherwood and Ginny Thornburg, Barbara Systic. They had done the work necessary to convince the department of Public Welfare that those conditions were deplorable, unacceptable, and so the department, without litigation in this case, decided that they were going to rapidly move hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people back to their communities. It so happens that most of those individuals were from western Pennsylvania with high, high concentration in Allegheny County which is the greater Pittsburgh area.
08:19:57:00 - 08:21:23:15
Lisa: You had talked about your colleagues at the ARC blowing the roof off of Polk - blowing it wide open. Can you tell me a little bit about --
Marsha: [There] were large cribs but they would put sort of a roof on the crib and to see individuals and sometimes we're talking teenagers, young adults just curled in a fetal position as part of behavior management. It was - these were bad times, these were bad, bad times and I always assumed that family members that would come to visit, and we did have a lot of family members who were very, very attentive to their sons and daughters who were living there, had the same experience that I had in childhood. I don't think they ever got to see what was going on in these large wards. I'm assuming, like I, they waited in a hallway in a very nice administration building waiting to see their sons and daughters.
08:21:24:15 - 08:24:41:15
Lisa: So the folks from PARCs, the parents that you just mentioned, put pressure on the state to visit Polk. Secretary Wohlgemuth visited, I believe, in May of 1973. Can you tell me what happened when she visited?
Marsha: I think that she shared that she was appalled and I think that she shared the grave concerns about safety and health and well-being of individuals. It was, I believe that would have been Governor Shapp and concurred and that's when the department declared that they were going to rapidly move as many individuals as they could out of Polk in a short period of time as they could. I've got to tell you it was, it was wild. In a several year period we created, based on a model by the way out in California that was not a realistic model. The belief at that time was that for individuals that were living in large, large, large institutions; that they would need a step down. IE a smaller institution and then would eventually move into the community. So we based the whole strategy on a model from California. Michigan meanwhile was moving people right out of large institutions and directly into community settings but Pennsylvania for whatever reason choose this California model. So in a short period of time there was the creation of four, what became shortly intermediate care facilities that were anywhere, initially, from 60-80 people. Those were Robinson Developmental Center, Verlaine, Allegheny School, and the state did open one of its own facilities. That's to say the state owned and operated it. That was C. Howard Marcy State Hospital. We brought again... we would go up to visit, nothing like the way that we plan now, we would go to visit, meet with individuals. I remember a social worker, at that time it was believed that people should be able to identify coins in order to merit living in the community and but we had a great social worker who would go up with us to interview and meet individuals and he would put out a quarter, a dime, a nickel, and a penny and rather than ask people if they could identify the dime he would just say "Which is the biggest coin?" and if they could point to it he would say "You're going to come home." But yeah, we would just interview people and unlike the elaborate planning that we do now which could take anywhere from six to eight months, we would identify individuals. The folks at Polk would do the necessary paperwork and sometimes within two weeks we would be there with a van and be bringing people home.
08:24:42:06 - 08:26:18:25
Lisa: Marsha let me take you back for a minute if I could because I think your perspective on this would be interesting; when the ARC folks, your ARC predecessors, sort of blew the roof off of Polk. They saw the cages, Wohlgemuth visited, etc. The cages had actually been used since the late 1950s and ARC has certainly been very actively visiting Polk and other centers and reporting on conditions. I think even in '69 they put a very detailed report forward to the state about conditions they saw at Polk. The superintendent, James McClelland, I believe, said that his practices were well known to his superiors. So I'm curious about your perspective on that. Why did it take the state so long to react? Did they in fact know about the conditions that were going on at Polk?
Marsha: Sure, I mean they knew about the conditions. But you've got to put in perspective that this group of moms, along with Bob Nelkin, who was their chauffeur and their cheerleader, were traveling all over the state. It wasn't just Polk. They were monitoring conditions at private facilities, in our public facilities and I think it just got to a breaking point where these very, very courageous moms had said we've had it. We will if necessary bring in photographers under cover. We will do just... I think it just got to that breaking point. We will do whatever is necessary to change this.
08:26:19:22 - 08:28:43:18
Lisa: And you had said that certainly parents didn't have access to the back wards.
Lisa: They didn't get to see the conditions in Polk that their children were living in. Once the abuse with hard evidence, the abuse, the use of cages, other types of neglect in the center, how did parents react?
Marsha: The parent reaction at Polk for instance - we're going to talk about Western Center - was I think much different. For one thing we had a lot more public publicity about the conditions and I mean we're talking screeching headlines in what was then the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the Pittsburgh Press. You also had, I think because of the distance, less active family involvement then you had in later years of the institutionalized. Polk was a far drive from Western Pennsylvania and I think what families have told me what they got to see were once a year there would be a festival, a fair, and I always thought it was cute. A group of women who were called, these were people who lived at Polk, were called the Polka Dots, and they would entertain and I think that families generally did not see what was going on inside. But you did not have that active resistance moving toward guardianship that you had in later days of the institutionalization. Also remember we were bringing people home to smaller facilities, closer to their families so it was done in a, again not in the best of ways. I can look back at it now and say "my goodness", these people could have come right into homes of their own, but in doing it that way I believe that it gave family members a sense that their son or daughter was still going to be well taken care of in what were mini facilities.
08:29:20:13 - 08:29:58:15
Lisa: Marsha you were describing the media scrutiny that Polk was under in 1973 as a result of the advocacy of PARC parents. Did that play a role in the administration's response to the condition at Polk?
Marsha: Oh, I have no doubt. When you have your second largest city in Pennsylvania with screeching, blaring headlines not only about the conditions but about the administration's response I feel that the governor, the secretary of welfare really didn't have much of a choice but to do something to respond to all of these reports.
08:29:58:19 - 08:30:52:00
Lisa: And what did they do?
Marsha: Well they decided that they were going to rapidly depopulate at Polk. And I must say that's probably the only time we've had that kind of response from an administration. Most of institutionalization required litigation, in many cases major litigation, such as Pennhurst - three times before the United States Supreme Court. Some have been achieved through protracted settlement agreements that would take three or four years. In this case I think that the department and Elaine Wohlgemuth personally felt responsibility, accepted responsibility and acted rapidly.
08:30:52:28 - 08:31:10:05
Lisa: Were people held accountable? Did people lose jobs after this?
Marsha: I have no idea how many people may have lost their jobs. Certainly the superintendent did. In those days the Department of Public Welfare had a way of moving people to another facility so...
08:31:10:03 - 08:32:22:00
Lisa: In fact I think maybe a year or so, year and a half after he was fired he was reinstated although not to Polk and he chose to retire rather than go to a different center but I'm curious about the kind of message that might have sent to the parent advocates who worked so hard to expose the conditions.
Marsha: You know, I think that following the department's commitment and their show of commitment in toward institutionalization I think that a lot of the shift... the focus shifted. It's not that people weren't visiting but suddenly there were a lot of people from outside Polk such as those who were of us who were regularly visiting and bringing people home. Advocates only have so much energy and sometimes I think it's up on the roof; it usually is but a lot of the shift for our chapters in Western Pennsylvania became that of securing good community supports for the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of individuals who were coming home at such a rapid pace.
More Interview Chapters
- YOU ARE HERE: Early Career, Parent Reaction to Conditions at Polk State School and Hospital
- Creating Community Supports
- Marsha Becomes Executive Director of Allegheny County ARC
- Advocating to Close Institutions, Pennhurst Lawsuit
- Closure of Western Center
- Federal Mandate for Early Intervention, ARC Becomes ACHIEVA
- Working to Continually Innovate
- Reflections on Career
About Marsha Blanco
President and Chief Executive Officer, ACHIEVA
Clearfield County, PA
ACHIEVA, ARC, Community Supports, Disability Law Project, Family Trust, Media, Parents, Pennhurst, Polk, Western Center, Workshops