Chapter 6: Peters Becomes Director of Allegheny County MH/MR and Drug and Alcohol and Homelessness
10:52:43:03 - 10:53:18:22
Lisa: Chuck, in 1975, I believe, you took a position and tell me if I have your title correct because it's a long title, Director of Allegheny County MH/MR and Drug and Alcohol and Homelessness.
Chuck: That's true; I often said it's like being a colonel in the Mexican Army - you get a very big title and very little authority. Actually, I did have a lot of authority and that job I held for the last 20 years '75 to '95 and had fun doing it.
Lisa: Could you please tell me what your position entailed, particularly as it relates to the mental retardation side of your work?
Chuck: Sure. By that time - I spoke earlier, I think, about how the money came down from the Department of Welfare and it was not categorized, so now money is categorized, Mental Retardation, Mental Health, Drug and Alcohol and later Homelessness. And the decision essentially was made on where the money when we got it was going to go and how it was going to be spent.
As one of my brags, unlike other counties I treated the Mental Health and Retardation Board here as a governing board and of course the commissioners could veto anything they wanted to. But, I ran every major decision past the board, sometimes they'd agree with me sometimes they didn't, a but...in those 20 years I only had the commissioners block two things that the MH/MR Board had approved because obviously we went to great deal of pain to make sure it was represented to the board, and it was tastily understood that the president of the board, for one term would be mental health oriented, the president next time would be mental retardation oriented, and I went to a great deal of trouble to make sure that the MH guys, now that they were president of all and the MR guys were president of MH.
So, it was essentially running this program was like eighteen million when I started and I think we were somewhere around one hundred and seventy-five million when I left. Primarily because of really assertive legislative political and lawsuits; we sued the Department of Welfare all the time and we never lost.
And staying there, as I said, I remember a...the state came up with this formula to dividing the number across the counties, and I'm not going to tell you I can't balance my checkbook, I had people that could balance their checkbook, and mine. And I said, "Run the formula, tweak it see..." Well, the formula gave Philadelphia special consideration, which of course was not well known.
So we said, "Come on guys using your formula we should get another million-four"; "We don't have it and you shouldn't get it" and so we went to court. And we had a hearing and I don't remember why that was, but it was in Chester County and the departments attorney said, "Well, we just don't have it."
We had prepared a list of places where they had money in like a, Miss Pennsylvania Contest, the Cattle Show, whatever and the judge said, "Get real, you're talking about a million-four that's coffee money in the state today, they've already showed you where you have it; give it to them."
And we were so confident we were going to win it we already had badges printed that said, "County 1.4 - State Zip", but I couldn't have done that without the support of the Chairman of the Commissioners Tom Forester, who was one of the last New Deal Democrats, and I'm not so sure he would have been so supportive if it wouldn't have been for Bob Nelken who we've talked about. He was...they were a good team - we made a good team.
The other thing that we did - this was under Governor Casey - the state, we thought, was short-changing us, so we right before Easter had an egg dyeing thing and we dyed, if I remember correctly, 6,000 eggs and every egg had the first name and last initial of somebody on the Waiting List. And we then packed all the eggs up and took them down to Harrisburg, and the guy who took the eggs down - it wasn't me - pulled up to the gate and the governor was entertaining a Delegation from China. And the state troopers from Alabama thought because he was driving a van with 6,000 eggs he was a caterer and he opened the door, and unloaded 6,000 eggs in the kitchen. We made the point - it got lots of media, some media statewide.
Another thing we did was a letter writing campaign to Habitat for Humanity, all ten Catchment areas, all service areas had to pull in their consumers and staff members on given night, we called it "write-night"; I said Habitat for Humanity, but it's Amnesty International. And we wrote, gee I don't know, probably 100,000 letters to legislatures. Unfortunately those thing don't happen anymore.
10:59:11:20 - 10:59:58:12
Lisa: Why don't those things happen anymore?
Chuck: The whole political climate has changed either the - I don't want to generalize too much. For example the Mental Retardation Movement, not unlike unions that won everything, and quit being that aggressive like the unions did. Or maybe, it's just that the ballgame has changed so dramatically that there's other ways to go at it.
But, I don't hear that much about court cases, and I don't hear much about in-your-face about the Department of Welfare.
11:00:01:13 - 11:02:49:07
Lisa: I wonder if you could give me some context for Western Center, I think and you might have implied this earlier, that when it first opened it wasn't initially seen as a bad place.
Chuck: Oh no, no, no.
I was working for the ARC in Beaver County and when Western Center opened everybody said, "Oh, thank God we're so delighted" and we're talking about a...employment in Washington County, it had been a reformed school and somehow they had phased out that was no longer the popular way to treat juvenile delinquents, so they converted it into a facility for mental retarded.
We were absolutely delighted when it opened because we didn't know about CLA's (Community Living Arrangements) so we were absolutely delighted.
And I mentioned I was doing parental counseling, there was this mother who had a very, very, very challenging son, very hyperactive. And her husband was a long distance trucker, so she had this kid 24/7 and I called the department and I said, "Look, it's like this, you either have to take the mom to Dixmont, which was a mental health facility, "or the son to Western Center." And had the commissioner write...Commissioner from Beaver County write letters and persons and so on.
And so, we got the young boy into a...into a Western Center; and, three weeks later, he was dead. So now, all the parents in the parent-counseling thing are looking at me, like "false prophet" and I ask a social worker - old-line social worker from Western Center- to come up and explain what happened... I'll never forget this.
Because again, I was counseling to place kids if they need to be placed; I'll never forget this. The old social worker came and she said, "Take those hyperactive kids you place them in a place like that, and zing, zing, zing and then their dead." So, it was a long time before anybody from Beaver County went to Western Center, or any institution.
But the point was anyway, it was hard to get people in, even after Western opened.
11:02:50:08 - 11:04:42:16
Lisa: So, when did the perceptions of Western Center as a good place change?
I'm going to say probably... When I was commissioner is was under my supervision and the guy who was the superintendent at that time was a guy named Bob Heltner, a very, very nice man, a Quaker, who had worked for the county and went down there. And a... As we were talking about Polk earlier, it may have opened as a reform movement, but like most reform movements it ran out of steam. The people got very use to following the path of least resistance in taking care of these people; and so I'm going to say probably from the early '70s on the whole perception of it started going downhill. I spent almost as much time out there as I did at Polk.
Finally, got a wonderful woman by the name of Ruth Scott who had been the mental retardation Special Ed person for the city schools to go out as the superintendent...assistant superintendent for programs, and she was a very gutsy, very, very aggressive; appropriately aggressive woman and she eventually...Bob resigned, and Ruth took over. But, the harder she tried- and she did everything- and she couldn't turn the place around.
11:11:14:24 - 11:13:58:26
Lisa: Chuck, you stopped working as director in 1995, can you tell a little bit about the circumstances around that?
Chuck: Yeah. I didn't stop, I got fired.
You know, as a matter of fact, as I think about it, I got fired and that's how I got into the field. I got fired as a salesman and got into the field; I got fired and got out of the field.
The commissioners took over the... The Republicans took the House for the first time in 60 years, if I wanted to be philosophical I would say, "You live by the political sword, you die by the political sword" and that's probably true.
But anyway, the Republicans took the House and then fired probably, two dozen, top management in county government. And I was very philosophical about it, and it happened on Christmas Eve. We all got registered letters. They said that the Post Office messed up we were not suppose to get the letters 'till the next day. "Oh" I said, "Oh, good mess up [Christmas] dinner and not Christmas Eve".
But, what irritated me more than anything...I had gone out of my way to brief the new Commissioner's staff that all of my people had civil service protection, except me, and they should leave them alone. And my staff people started getting these letters, where they started calling me on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I was so irate I went into the office and sent all my senior staff an e-mail, and if they didn't have e-mail, I called them. And said, "Do not resign under any circumstance" they were asking for resignations. "Do not resign for any reason because you lose your civil service protection if you do". So, nobody resigned and I was told later that if I had any chance of remaining that ball of static, and I was delighted, because I said, "Why would I want to work for two court jesters when I've worked for the Prince of Services, Tom Forrester?"
So I had a good time, traveled a lot and was in Spain a...lot of sunbathers without the tops of their bathing suits on, and was so moved that I wrote the commissioners a letter and thanked them for firing me. Postcard actually, which appeared in the paper, which said, "Director sent postcard from the edge". "Director thanks Commissioner for purge."
11:14:03:00 - 11:15:36:10
Lisa: Chuck, can you tell me who took the position over from you?
Chuck: Yeah; when I got fired a guy by the name of Dan Tureski, who I had worked closely with in the past, from the time I came to town as a matter of fact, and Dan was put in the position. There was a lot of outcry because Dan had been party to court suits and other actions trying to stop the deinstitutionalization process. In other words, the whole policy was reversed...the local paper the PG [Post Gazette] editorialized saying they didn't understand why the commissioners got themselves in such a mess with Dan, who was a very vocal advocate, but had absolutely no administrative experience. And the local ARC- and I applaud this - really got on the advocacy soapbox and every commissioner's meeting; at the end of the meeting there's a three minute opportunity for people to address the commissioners, and the ARC lined up for every Thursdays, and I have no idea the number, 12 different parents to come in and say that Dan doesn't belong in the job of their retardation thing. The mental health people were a little more relaxed about it.
11:18:02:07 - 11:18:54:13
Lisa: What did you do next in your career; what did you after 1995?
Chuck: I did some consulting for various foundations primarily for Edith Trees, which specializes in grants for the mental retardation fields. I appeared as an expert witness as few times, wrote a lot of letters to the editor, and a...was on the citizens...was a founding member of the Citizens Police Review Board and became elected Tuisech of the appointed, I guess, of the Southside Celtic Society. And that was the only thing I do... Oh, I'm sorry, I was on neighborhood boards, but the only thing I do now is on the Southside Celtic Society.
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
- Peters Becomes PA Commissioner for Mental Retardation, Opens Marcy Center, Moves People to Community
- YOU ARE HERE: 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