Chapter 1: Background and Early Career
Q. My name is Lisa Sonneborn. I'm interviewing David Ferleger at his offices in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Also present is our videographer, Oscar Molina and, David, do we have your permission to begin the interview?
A. Any time you like I'm here.
Q. Thanks. Okay. Uh, we'll start with a simple question. When and where were you born?
A. Philadelphia, May 10, 1948.
Q. And can you tell me what interested you in the practice of law?
A. Sure. Uh, I started a five year medical program that Penn State and Jefferson Medical College had. Uh, decided not to be a doctor and majored in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and, uh, looking around to see what to do next I realized that, uh, the research I might do as a sociologist would end up being used by lawyers, uh, because if you look at a newspaper everyday a huge percentage of the, what goes on in the world has some connection to the law and it was in the middle of, uh, various civil rights movements happening in 1969 so I went to law school.
Q. What, um, made you interested in issues related to disability?
A. Uh, there's two things, I think, prompted my interest. One is as the child of Holocaust survivors I am more sensitive, perhaps, to what happens when people are treated as less than people, as less than first class citizens and during law school I was fortunate to study what happens to people institutionalized and spent the last year of law school spending a lot of time, every day on a research project, uh, at the Haverford State Hospital, uh, which lead to my first Lawyer View article, my paper for that course and lead to my creating a mental patient's civil liberties project, we called it, at that hospital after I graduated. But the other answer, the second answer maybe, uh, sort of more true, is that the, uh, I'll call it the confluence of my background as a child of survivors and the civil rights movement and what I studied in school also fits with the fact, which I didn't really realize until after I got involved in this area, that the Nazis used every method later used to murder the European Jewish population first on people with disabilities, whether it poison gas or other kinds of techniques.
Q. When you were done in law school you created one of the first or maybe the first institution based law firm. Um, I'm wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that.
A. Sure. Uh, I graduated from law school. And I'm fairly sure I didn't go to my law school graduation since I'd already opened an office in Center City Philadelphia. I created, with two foundation grants, the Mental Patient's Civil Liberties Project and, uh, for my small two room office barrowed a typewriter from an ex-mental patient and bought a door that I put up on two saw horses for my desk and obtained permission from the head of the Haverford State Hospital to open an office, uh, and created the first in-hospital program in the country for the rights of people with, uh, mental illness. And that, uh, program with those two foundation grants totaling $10 thousand for that first year is what I began my law career with.
Q. And what sort of institutional issues were you, were you seeing at Haverford, were you encountering and advocating on behalf of?
A. Of the, we who did this was me and I had about a dozen law students from various law schools who were working with me as advocates and Temple University School of Social Work provided me with, I guess one could say, two social work students interest-, interested in the organizing track so they worked with me to help organize the first in-hospital self-advocacy group, uh, so that, to determine the priorities of the legal work we were doing I had a group of people who were patients at the hospital to help, uh, me, me, to meet with me and to help decide what lawsuits we would file, file. And the, uh, so thinking about a term that probably was created later, uh, deviants in a juxtaposition which is a term that Wolf Wolfensberg-, Wolf Wolfensberger used. Uh, our office was placed not in a high profile, high status location but by the loading dock down the hall from the morgue. So, uh, the image of, sort of, trash and loading and death was just sort of juxtaposed with protection of peoples' rights. So we had a great office until the hospital decided to kick us out.
Q. Was it unusual that they gave you permission to be there in the first place?
A. Well, it was unusual, this was the only time in the country this had been done and we worked on both individual cases, individual advocacy for patients and also on some class action litigation which we filed. Uh, at the time many of the subjects that are now, uh, covered by entire books, one could only write and I did write only a couple pages about them because there was no law in this field. The law that had been developed up until this point was nearly entirely about commitment rights, how you get into the hospital. There was almost nothing about what happens to your rights once you were in the hospital.
Q. And what did the patients, um, the residents rather, um, what did they outline as their priorities? You said you were working, um, with them as well as on behalf of them.
A. The lawsuits we filed, uh, first were one about the rights of children. The hospital had a unit for children and at that time in Pennsylvania, uh, parents, and around the country, parents could sign kids into mental hospitals with no, uh, protection at all for the child and by kids I mean people up to 18 years old. Uh, so that was the first case we filed to ask for some kind of due process or procedural protections for children in the mental health commitment process. Uh, there was no review by a judge or by any disinterested party in those kind of commitments and in that case the court appointed me Guardian Ad Litem of all, I forget, six or eight thousand children in all Pennsylvania mental hospitals for the purpose of this lawsuit. And the other case we filed, uh, it was heard by Clifford Scott Green, a Federal District Judge in Philadelphia, it was about forced labor in mental institutions, uh, called peonage, uh, I mentioned the judges name partly because he was a great judge and also because an issue that he decided was that peonage violated peoples' rights under the 13th Amendment's ban on slavery. And Judge Green was a black judge, uh, so this was and I think probably still is the only case that decided that the 13th Amendment slavery ban applies inside mental institutions. At the time we filled the case there were several thousand patients in hospitals who were working without pay and without any real value to them in Pennsylvania hospitals. The day the court order went into effect the number dropped to 600 because, uh, the law under the decision we received forbid labor unless it was paid, voluntary and therapeutic and the State realized they couldn't meet that standard for thousands of people. So, for example, the elevator operator at Philadelphia State Hospital, uh, was a patient, unpaid, and that person could no longer be kept as an elevator operator unless those three conditions were met.
About David Ferleger
Born: Philadelphia, PA. 1948
Pennhurst, Olmstead, Institutions, Raymond Broderick