Chapter 4: Polk State School and Hospital, Controversial Treatments, Firing of Superintendant
10:19:26:08 - 10:20:40:02
Lisa: Had you visited Polk personally?
Chuck: The answers yes. Polk... go back to when I was at Beaver County, Polk was not seen as a bad place. They had the annual "Harvest Days" at the County Fair, which were a great fun, the a...after we did the MH/MR study one of the places we had meeting for the whole northwest corner of the state was Polk Center and the other place was Ward State Hospital, which was further north.
And in fact when I was leading the War of Poverty, Dr. McCollum offered me a job as his assistant there and I asked for clarification of what the job was, and he said, "You're going to insure that nobody here gets hurt badly." I remember that very, very vividly.
10:20:48:28 - 10:22:17:26
Lisa: When you had visited Polk what did you observe there?
Chuck: The first time - I got a whole list of Polk antidotes. The first time I ever went there I was an undergraduate at Thiel [College] in Greenville, and taken Phsyc 101 and that was the fieldtrip and a...that was one of the field trips.
Anyway, went to Polk; and I got this bad habit use to drive my family crazy when we were touring any place, to go off on my own or lag behind or, if I got bored, speed up.
So, on this occasion I fell behind and I noticed this big door and it had a slide on it like you might see in a prison. And I slid this door open and one of the residents had been confined there and he was looking out and he screamed at me. Well, I levitated, and it was years before I lagged behind or looked where I wasn't suppose to, but that was my first experience at Polk.
Later, when I was Commissioner of Mental Retardation one of my jobs was supervision of Polk.
Joe Kotaba made that very easy in Western Center, so I spent a lot of time at Polk.
10:22:22:10 - 10:24:25:22
Lisa: A lot has been made public...or was certainly made public in the late '60s early '70s particularly of the use of cages of a way to modify behavior at Polk.
Lisa: Had you observed that or any other kinds of restraints used?
Chuck: I think we have to backup a little bit.
I don't remember observing any of those, but if I had of, when I was a Special Ed teacher or an undergraduate or teaching in Beaver County or working for the ARC in Beaver County, I would have not been shocked or surprised because that was kind of the norm, that was an accepted treatment modality; I'm using treatment very advisedly, but that was a modality a more common.
The fact that the Legislature allocated something like $8 a day per resident speaks to that.
Related to that, I think that people tend to forget this.
Polk could not have operated without the working residence. Every severely involved resident had a higher functioning "educable" resident who was like the nurse's aide, or whatever.
Later when the federal a...federal a...law was passed that you couldn't have these working residents called "peons" - you couldn't have the peons any longer there was a really dearth of enough help of staff. So, what I'm saying is Polk and all the other state institutions were tremendously understaffed in those days.
10:24:27:25 - 10:25:52:06
Lisa: Do you think that parents were aware of the conditions that their children were living in at the Polk center?
Chuck: I think...aware... Go back to what I said about the norm. But beyond that, if you were a parent and went through the very painful process of placing your child in the institution, even if you were aware the tendency - not in all cases - the tendency was, "Oh, that's not so bad". I guess - so the answer to that that question is... First of all, if you accept the fact that the institutions were the "norm" and you accept the fact that many of these people were very high functioning, and they weren't in the cages. It was the people with behavior problems and so on; should they have been in cages? No. No. But, if the state was going to spend $8 a day the options for the management was pretty limited - not totally vacant, but pretty limited.
10:25:53:23 - 10:28:00:02
Lisa: Thanks to the efforts of Allegheny ACR parents and other parents, Bob Nelkin, the conditions that were in existence at Polk were exposed very publicly in 1973.
Lisa: How was it that Polk was able to persuade Secretary Wohlgemuth to visit Polk, and what was the result of her visit?
Chuck: Helene Wohlgemuth, I knew her before she was Secretary from Beaver County; first of all was an excellent Secretary of Welfare. Avery, very caring woman, very charismatic, a...when Hurricane Katrina hit...a she...her leadership around Harrisburg was outstanding.
Was it Katrina?
Agnes; I'm sorry, Agnes...different hurricane, Agnes.
So, how did they persuade her? I don't think it was difficult to persuade, the Department of Welfare had responsibility for the institutions and they said they'd take her up and show her what's going on. And the fact that they already knew what was going on meant that they shouldered the things that they'd see.
You know, in the military there's an expression when you're inspecting, "Notice the things you're suppose to notice and ignore the things you're not supposed to".
Well, that's not confined to the military and so, she noticed things that she was not suppose to notice because Barbara Systic, Jean Isherwood, Pat Clapp, I don't remember who was all on that trip, pointed them out to her.
10:28:01:20 - 10:28:58:13
Lisa: And, what was the result of that?
Chuck: As I recall and I'm not sure that I recall this correctly, she said to the Superintendent Jim McClelland...Dr. Jim McClelland...get those people out of the cribs, out of the cages, and he refused and she summarily fired him.
That was a big brouhaha... When we talk about how supportive the media was, that's true of the Pittsburg media. But the media in Venango County where Polk is, and around and even up in Erie, it was less than enthusiastic about all this. And in fact, he had a lot of support so that took really a lot of internal fortitude for her to do that.
10:29:00:04 - 10:29:41:12
Lisa: Some of the people that the superintendent had support from I believe were Polk parents and even residents.
Chuck: Absolutely! Absolutely! In the local ARC Pittsburg there was always some level of strain between parents who had placed their child and between parents who had not placed their child. And that certainly acerbated that situation, but we got by that, general that was the split among parents statewide if you were in the ARC or not, people who had placed, people who had not placed.
10:29:43:10 - 10:31:35:16
Lisa: You had referenced this a bit earlier, but certainly the superintendent claimed the conditions at Polk were due to the underfunding and understaffing.
Chuck: I think that was a major, major piece of it, but also like every institution, large institution anyway, some very bad habits had evolved. Polk had been open at that point probably 80 years, maybe 90; I forget, it was 1880 or 1890 that it opened.
So like, any institution at some point whatever...and when it opened it was... as Mayview [State Hospital] for the Mentally Ill here in Allegheny County, it was considered a great thing, it was part of the Victorian social conscious thing, so it was considered a good thing. But, 50 - 60 years on...it became a way of life and people follow the path of least residence, and it was easier to put people in cages and roof on it than to really modify the behavior or staff, so that the person didn't have to in.
The Legislature was really niggardly in supporting all the institutions, but we're talking real support the Senator from that area his name was Frye, Republican, was all over Helene Wohlgemuth - why? Because that was a major employer of his constituents worked in that institution.
10:31:37:20 - 10:32:34:01
Lisa: McClelland claimed that the cages that had been used since, I believe, 1958 were used with the full knowledge of his superiors?
Chuck: I would believe that I have no trouble believing that, it brings you back around to the whole thing of about habit and a...practice, best practice and a... McClelland in his own right was a very competent humanitarian administrator running an institution; that I think at that point was 3,200 people with 1,200 staff plus peons. So, he by his own right and by the rank and file of the troops said, "Well, why wouldn't we have cages, we've always had cages."
10:32:34:25 - 10:33:46:24
Lisa: Should the State have acted sooner?
Chuck: Oh, of course, but of course they should have, but the a...but who...what was going to provide the enthuses for them to act?
When I became Commissioner of Mental Retardation, I had the blessing of the Secretary Helene Wohlgemuth, and a guy who was the Deputy Secretary of Mental Retardation, I can't think of his name at the moment. But anyway, they anointed me and I thought I was going to be the magic reformer and really, really tried to make changes cut through the red tape. And one of the old-line bureaucrats said, "The Secretary will be gone in few years, so will the Deputy Secretary, and so will you; why would we change?" And I'm not talking about major changes - I'm just talking about things like having access to mattresses over here more than we need there, and having go through paperwork in order to move the mattresses, that sort of thing.
More Interview Chapters
- Background and Early Career
- Early Involvement with the ARC, War on Poverty, MH/MR Act
- Allegheny County ARC, Parent Protests, Right to Education
- YOU ARE HERE: Polk State School and Hospital, Controversial Treatments, Firing of Superintendant
- Peters Becomes PA Commissioner for Mental Retardation, Opens Marcy Center, Moves People to Community
- Peters Becomes Director of Allegheny County MH/MR and Drug and Alcohol and Homelessness
- Reflections on Career, Intellectual Disability Rights Movement
About Charles Kantan Peters
Born: 1933, Pittsburgh, PA
Retired. Formerly: Educator, Director of the Governors Rehabilitation Study, New Hampshire, Director/ War on Poverty, Erie, PA, Director / Allegheny County ARC, Commissioner for Mental Retardation / Allegheny County, Director of Allegheny County MH/MR and Drug and Alcohol and Homelessness
ARC, Civil Rights, Community, Institutions, Marcy, Parents, Polk State School and Hospital, PLF/ID, Protests, Special Education, Western Center