Chapter 5: Peters Becomes PA Commissioner for Mental Retardation, Opens Marcy Center, Moves People to Community
10:35:29:17 - 10:39:47:24
Lisa: Chuck, in 1973 you became the Commissioner of Mental Retardation for the Western Region of Pennsylvania?
Lisa: And how many counties were in your jurisdiction?
Chuck: There were twenty-three counties plus Western Center and Polk Center, and then somebody discovered that you can get ICF money and there were a lot of mentally retarded in state institutions - I'm sorry, in state mental hospitals, so one of the additional things was to open MR [mental retardation] units on the grounds of every state hospital. That was primarily, obviously, a money-making thing for the state and not a bad thing, but anyway, that was... My primary [responsibility] as far as I was concerned was to get people out of Polk, and at that point it was a cliche because the only way out of Polk was through the cemetery.
I remember being up there really early one morning and seeing a truck go by with a casket on the back. I was commissioner than, and I decided I was going to follow the truck and see where it went with the casket. And we went down from the Administration Building, it was a foggy morning, very appropriate, we went down and went into the Polk graveyard. Which I didn't even know there was a Polk graveyard, and I'm the Commissioner of Mental Retardation. And the grave had already been excavated, and six guys got off the truck and put the casket in the ground, shoveled the dirt in on top of it, and "holy-moly!" I didn't even know about this.
10:42:47:00 - 10:44:09:29
Lisa: You didn't describe any kind of burial services or...
Chuck: No as a matter of fact, I waited. I thought somebody might say a few words or sprinkle some holy water, or something; no there was no it was just... A there's a hole in the ground there's a casket, as I remember it, it was a pretty good casket and into the ground, shoveled the dirt in, got in the truck and drive away; that's all there was.
Later, Ginny Thornburgh did a lot of...all of the tombstones had a number on it, "69"; and somewhere there was a roster that matched the number with a... "Chuck Peters is in #88", and Ginny went through a lot of trouble getting gravestones with the person who was in on it.
10:44:11:12 - 10:44:36:15
Lisa: Did that feel like an important thing to do to you?
Chuck: Yeah. I spent a lot of time in the Marine Corp and we take a lot of pride in making sure that our people are properly buried...it's to say I was never shot at...properly buried and have some honor and are remembered; and yeah, that was a very important thing.
But in that year, I got somewhere around 550 people...two years I was with the state...about 555 people out of Polk, which I think was probably a record.
But, everybody did not go to a group home - three-person or six-person or whatever- in the community because if we would have waited for the group homes to come on line...literally, some people were dying. So, I captured two vacant but brand new nursing homes; the reason they were vacant was because some Medicare bill that Nixon had passed were...had not resolved in enough elder; so, captured these two.
One of them, Norm Mulgrave, who later was president of ARC - I asked him to start a corporation to run it, and he did and that organization is still going, although now all those people...that's now an administration building for that corporation.
The other thing I did was take Marcy TB [tuberculosis] Hospital; when we were talking about the PLF's [Private Liscensed Facilities] and the institutions and trying to find alternative placements, this is before the mental health and retardation. A lot of TB hospitals got converted to alternative use; I think Crescent was one of the TB hospitals that became a mental retardation facility.
My friends at ARC, and they were my friends, [were] really, really irritated with me because I opened another "institution", but I had to get people out of Polk. It was like - the analogy I use- it was like Dunkirk. Do I want to wait 'till everybody has a lifeboat, or do I want to get them out now?
I think that probably one of the mistakes in my career was supporting the closing of Marcy few years later, but at that point I was very, very proud of it and the reason it may not have been as successful as I had envisioned was I had left the state by that time was again the state bureaucracy, which was very difficult.
10:39:58:23 - 10:41:44:03
Lisa: Can you tell me a little bit about your efforts to transition people from life at Polk to the community?
Chuck: Well, Marcy was uniquely qualified architecturally to do this. First of all, you had kind of a ward setup where the people who had had TB came in originally, and they moved to one or two person rooms and then, they moved out into cottages on the campus. So, that was ideal we brought folks down to the ward setup put them in individual rooms as they progressed, out into the cottages and then into the community. And because Marcy was in Pittsburg, unlike Polk or even Western, to get the community providers and get the people to leave the campus and go to jobs in the city, or even to sheltered workshops, it loaned itself architecturally to that.
Getting the staff to get medical model out of their head was another issue, but we got the nursing staff to wear civilian clothes and we were successful with everybody except for the superintendent and the chief nurse who insisted on coming around in lab coats, no matter what we did.
10:41:45:10 - 10:42:45:00
Lisa: You said that Marcy closed a few years later.
Lisa: And you regretted that closure, or supporting that closure; why did it close and why did you regret it?
Chuck: Well, why did it close?
It closed because understandably the Movement, and I think people forget, in those days retardation, mental retardation, was a Movement. The Movement did not want more institutions, here's the newest one, so that's why it closed.
Why did I regret supporting it? Two levels...
The first and most important level was later as far as I was concerned it can became clear if the facility had been properly managed and there was some vigor in the leadership it would have served the purpose we envisioned originally.
The other reason was by that time I was county director and didn't get enough money from the state to do it.
10:44:47:08 - 10:46:16:05
Lisa: You were talking about moving people from Polk and other centers to the community and was sort of rapid nature of that process, you moved a lot of people out, or a lot of people moved out during your tenure of commissioner in a fairly short period of time.
Was the concept of community life still relatively new? Or was it relatively new in Pennsylvania?
Chuck: Yeah: when I got in the business, when I was teaching Special Ed, it was practically unheard of. And now, back up on the mental retardation side, to the best of my knowledge it was unheard of.
Mental health side - what they called it - was just getting started [with] what they called "half-way houses". The idea being they had people in the state hospitals, the institutions, that didn't belong there and if they brought them out and they half way into the community, hence "half-way house".
But, it was almost unheard of in Pennsylvania and certainly was unheard of in Allegheny County. And I think the earlier starts were in New England and Connecticut, and maybe Massachusetts, I could be wrong about that, but, it was not until after the MH/MR study that anybody started talking about community living. Community living in those days was staying with your parents.
10:46:17:15 - 10:48:27:08
Lisa: But you mention parents, and certainly many parents who had placed their children in centers were fearful about their move to community; is that...did you understand those fears?
Chuck: Oh yeah.
Go back to what I said originally, you place your child in this facility that was...gut-tearing to do that. And now you're going to tear your guts out again to move the child out?
There was a really remarkable woman very active in the ARC here by the name of Sarah Saltier, and Sarah's son was at Polk. And she use to organize, this had nothing to do with the ARC, Sarah did it on her own, used to organize bus trips, l think, once a month or once every two months so parents could go up and visit and that sort of thing.
She was an advocate in the ARC later when I was hired to run the...Director of ARC Allegheny County. I cheated on the civil service [application] and got her hired just so we would have somebody in the office who was a parent who understood the parent point of view. After she retired she would go to Israel on fieldtrips and teach them how to run orphanages and institutions.
And as I said, she was very, very a...where I'm going with this a...finally came an opportunity to bring her son out. She agonized over that even though by that time she'd seen a lot of successful group home placements and so on; she really, really agonized over that, but ultimately she did it.
10:48:28:05 - 10:49:06:04
Lisa: What were parents' fears, do you think, about community?
Chuck: Oh, I think they thought that a...being in the institution you were perfectly safe, which was totally ironies. There were rapes in the institutions; there was certainly a lot of stealing, in fact one of the things when I use to speak to a group of parents I use to say, "You're absolutely right, there are dangers in the community and anything that can happen to your child in a group community can happen to him or her in the institution"; and I really believe that and I still believe it.
10:49:31:19 - 10:52:24:29
Lisa: Did you think that the system struggled to support people with significant disabilities in the community?
Chuck: Absolutely! When we started bringing people out my philosophy was taking the highest functioning folks out first, which again irritated my friends at ARC. But, the thought behind that was number one; the community doesn't know how to take care of these people, so let's start with the least difficult people. The second thing was, it costs less to bring those folks out, so we can get more folks out. If we start right away dealing with profound mentally retarded we're not going to very successful and we're not going to move very, very many people. So yeah, we started with the easiest people first, which I said irritated ARC.
And I think the other part to that question you asked was; do I think everybody can be cared for in the community?
If you were to ask me that in 1995 I would have replied... I would have responded definitely affirmatively. But since then, I've been doing work for one of the local foundations that specializes in money for the mentally retarded, and have come to the conclusion, no. Everybody can... Well, back that up, everybody can... If you want to do brain surgery in your kitchen you can modify your kitchen to do it. If you want to take the most difficult in the community you can do that, but I'm hearing stories now of very, very involved people in group homes that have one staff person around the clock and providers won't touch them.
Which take us back to the issue of bringing the less handicapped out first, so-much-so that in Allegheny County they're starting to 4 or 6 recommit people to Polk, which is where I came in.
So, my answer would have to be, only if you want to pay a very, very big price financially, and the reality is the political climate and financial climate now is not what it was in the '70s or even the '80s. I don't know that it is...that you can do that and I don't know if it is sustainable if you do.
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
- Polk State School and Hospital, Controversial Treatments, Firing of Superintendant
- YOU ARE HERE: 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