Chapter 4: Closure of Pennhurst, Development of Residential Services, Role as Deputy Secretary
6:47:01:26 - 6:53:02:23
Q: So, the Pennsylvania ARC, PARC, certainly considered the right to education the first step toward closing institutions, or to closing Pennhurst, rather, and in '74 it did join a class action lawsuit in effort to close that institution. I'm wondering if you were part of those conversations with counsel or with anyone involved in the process, in your role at the ARC. And I'm also wondering if you imagined it would take ten years to actually close Pennhurst?
A: Well, certainly I was enough of a novice not to speculate one way or the other how long things would take. But knowing the size and immensity of a Pennhurst, and of course it went beyond Pennhurst, once you got into the system, in the, I forget what the total numbers of people in institutions were back then. I know there were seven thousand employees in the institutions at that time. Uh, but um, no in 1974, David Ferleger engaged [Winnie] Halderman and filed a class action suit having enough persons to be identified to take it as a class action and uh, PARC, and PILCOP being their council entered Amicus in that case and continued to work throughout that case. They, uh, you know there were the, they were the active attorneys on the one side who were in agencies or paid situations, but there was a bevy of leading attorneys in the state, and especially from the Philadelphia community, who did a lot of work pro bono in the field at that time, and who, which were, was extremely helpful. I believe it was Jack Hegel and Rick Massilon, the son of a federal judge in the DC district. They assisted us in a number of areas of specific cases and one of the things that became very engaging during that time was Polk Center in the western part of the state, and their use of what they called therapeutic, uh, boxes I guess. But they were cages. And became very controversial, and took legal action against them to remove those cages and the superintendent and the staff were very unhappy. They felt that they were very paternalistic to the population there and that they shouldn't be challenged, etcetera, unfortunately. Uh, there were parents who were very angry; there were staff members who were very angry. Pat Clapp was president of PARC at that time, and some very vicious letters came in. We attempted to help Pat answer some of them. Some of them we didn't even bother to show her, because they were too, too violent and inappropriate and so on. But that's the nature of people. You never know what's gonna' come out. People, some people can handle things gently and with resolve, and with understanding. Other people just have nothing but revenge to exercise, and that's the normal, natural instinct of human kind anyways. Uh, but you got to get a controlled, those things, of course. Uh, so there were a number of things that became unpleasant of course, but you had to keep your eyes on the target and what it was we were dealing with and that was the people who were there [at Polk]. The superintendencey was changed, uh, at Polk. Subsequent superintendents were there, were much more on the advocacy side, or people who had identified with the advocates over the years, and so they had a lot of understanding in relationship to, to the parent expectations, and their own professionalism of what they should be doing in the institution, as opposed to the old line superintendents of the institution who tended to be older, possibly semi-retired psychiatrists. So their approach to the field was not necessarily developmental as opposed to identifying behavioral, uh, diagnoses or something. And that was not an easy pill to swallow, but I think it was fortunate that we saw the people who came in subsequently were more on the developmental educational side of things. Uh, psychologists, etc., who had a better engagement with needs and restructuring programs with the help of strong advocacy, 'cause the other side of the coin is that government is limited in budgets, and they tend to look around where are there priorities and institutional places tend to get squeezed so that the superintendent wasn't totally guilty, 'cause they had to deal with limited budgets. I know when we first went into Pennhurst, uh, there was kind of some pride that they were operating at the level of two dollars and 56 cents a day per patient. Now it's, you know, 300-400 dollars a day to maintain care in the institutional settings for severely disabled people and so on. So, quite a contrast.
6:53:02:23 - 6:59:08:06
Q: While this was going on, Pennsylvania became a leader in the field, trying to figure out how to serve people in the community. Um, can you tell me a little bit about that process and maybe who was involved in trying to make sure residential services were derived in a way that best served folks?
A: Community service is a, were beginning to develop in various parts of the country, so there were models that were looked at in Nebraska, Wolf Wolfensberger was one of the individuals who highlighted the normalization principle and then the need to move more toward normal living experiences in the community and so on. A number of people came out of the Nebraska program and Mel Knowlton, one who is well known in Pennsylvania, came to Pennsylvania, to head up the residential thrust. Macomb, Oakland in Michigan was a community program that was doing some interesting things in developing residential services. So community residential services were emerging through the '60s, so that when we got in that litigation period there were models to look at and so on. And Pennsylvania, because it had litigation, that was a thrust to say, 'you must do it' so that they judge in the case was beginning to say, 'well this is, natural, normal,' as the case was presented to him as to what should be done. A lot of negotiation was going on within the courtroom before any final determination. And for that reason, the department of welfare in Pennsylvania under which the office of mental retardation and the office of mental health lied under it. That's why there were deputy secretaries, under the secretary of the Department of Welfare. Uh, Frank Beal was the Secretary of Welfare, first of all, back in the late '70s, when the implementation was becoming stronger, and that was during Milton Shapp's administration from '76, I guess through '80. And uh, um, so what the court orders of uh, downsizing, reducing the overpopulation of institutions, that certainly had to be a first step, is to get within some range of reasonable size to staff and so on. So there was a mandate and a mandate to the legislator to fund the community services, which everybody didn't appreciate, but you had a federal court action behind it. And you know, the contention was well, a court can't tell a legislator what to do, but one of the examples was, I forget which state it was, maybe it was Alabama, the court said, we can't tell you what to do, but we can limit you in what you can do. Now maybe you can drop your football program in the colleges and universities, and provide the services. So all of a sudden, they found the money to provide the service. That's kind of example of dynamics of executive versus legislative uh, versus judicial, in the, in the good system that we have in this country. Still works, although it has ups and downs, for sure. Um, but, uh, Pennsylvania did have that advantage and much greater push as those things were coming into play. I had been with the ARC, we were pushing on a lot of fronts and then the deputy secretary position was, became open, and then they approached me and whether I would come fill that position. I think it was more the bur in the saddle than it was because I was the highly competent, highly professional person. But we, you know, we were used to dealing with dynamics and whether I was the best person for the role or not, we'll let history judge that over time and certainly some very good people came behind me. But we, uh, were able to, and the reason I took it at the time was it was a lame duck administration. Dennis Haggerty said to me, "You're crazy to take that position at this time." But I felt that there was so much going on that there was an advantage of doing it and realizing, you know, you are burning your bridges, you're identifying with an administration and if things change, things will change, and you will change with it. You know? So your bridges are burned. Uh, but it was a good period. A lot of movement, a lot of development in a lot of counties of residential services, and the mental health/mental retardation units had the mandate. The money was there for them. Here's the money, do it. And some did it extremely effectively, others did it ineffectively and couldn't even spend their money because they just didn't have the wherewithal or the imagination or what have you. But the models that had been developed here and there were being brought out and certainly the ARC was promoting that as well, and, uh, so we had a lot of good development, a lot of good providers, but then a lot of people had to learn a lot of things pretty fast to meet the needs within the community.
6:59:08:06 - 7:01:39:10
Q: You're very modest about your own role, but I think even you would have to acknowledge that you had to be pretty brave to take that position of deputy secretary at that time. I believe the secretary who served before you had retired after criticizing the administration on the radio about its handling of Pennhurst and intuitions.
A: Yeah, that individual was a, was a strong advocate, had come from the advocacy movement and had taken the role of deputy secretary. Um, and hadn't learned the issue of loyalty. Which must exist in structure of government. You can't have forces working against one another. You can work within it, and you can do things within, but you have to be diplomatic and so on, and, and uh, you know, he was on the radio and he criticized the governor's office, essentially. So, he didn't come in the next day. You know, it was that sharp. But when I took the role from the PARC to the position of Deputy Secretary, I did say to, uh, many of the advocates, you know, "I haven't lost my advocacy. However, you have to realize my position is that I have to be responsive to government and the purse strings, and what's available, and I can't push beyond that. I can advocate, plan, but once you're told no, and the legislature says no and no, you know, you can't be out there screaming and hollering. You have to just be working." And you know, enough good people in the office of mental retardation working and so on, too. And again, the litigation portioned off a lot of money to the program, so there was no, no reason for anybody to complain. There was just hard work and uh, lots of pressure internally. The deputy secretary, the secretary of welfare and his associate were constantly screaming and hollering. You know, "Why can't you get this done faster?" because of course, they wanted the, the performance and the evidence to be very strong out there. But then there was the reality of capabilities of people up and down the line.
7:01:39:10 - 7:04:21:13
Q: So, what did you think that you could accomplish as Deputy Secretary? What did you hope to accomplish?
A: Well, some of the areas that we focused on was to reinforce the people who were in the department. They were civil servants, uh, and many of them, very, very capable. So, you weren't gonna' do their work. You're gonna' enable them to do their work effectively. That was the issue. And then we tried to do a number of things of interaction with the department of education, department of rehabilitation. The uh, people in the legislator, the justice people, to try to have some interaction going on between people. Only a certain amount you can do in a prescribed period of time and so on. And then there was the election and Dick Thornburg won the election and it was going from a democratic leadership to a republican leadership. As I said, I was a republican and Governor Shapp tapped me on the shoulder and the issue was the service area, not the politics of the situation. So that didn't concern me. I knew the Thornburgs well because of their advocacy in the field, and Ginny Thornburg was an ARC president and has had a strong commitment to the field, then and subsequent and now. Uh, so, uh, but you knew your, you know, the bridges were burned and you were identified with an administration and the transition team was not necessarily the governor. It was his transition team. He made a decision to bring in a democrat into the secretary of welfare, Helen O'Bannon, who was a very strong leader, and it was a good political move on his part because of all the issues in the welfare department. And she had a strong, strong sense of, of, opportunities for women. And so she brought in a number of deputy secretaries and leadership roles were women. That certainly was a sign of the times as well. So, that's what happened in uh, Pennsylvania and some good leadership was brought into Pennsylvania and the Office of Mental Retardation subsequently, too.
7:04:21:13 - 7:06:05:19
Q: Was it strange for you going back to your time as deputy secretary? What was it like for you personally being on that opposite side knowing what your goals were but yet, kind of being on the opposite side of that fence in a way?
A: I guess my personality is not to be consumed by things like that. I just heard that uh, a number of the labor people, unions, had hung my effigy on the steps of the Capitol. So you say so what? But there's a lot of emotion going on out there and a lot of people were being threatened in their future [employment], or even challenging in a very broad sense, you know, everybody being swept with the same brush, which was not true. You know, as we said, you have people who are, who are hardworking and committed in the truest sense and you have those who are very passive and indifferent to what they're doing and so on and do forth. So, but, um, it just was a lot of emotion going on at that time. And so we just took it in stride and life goes on and so we just moved along with it. Yep.
7:06:05:19 - 7:10:32:14
Q: Okay, thanks. Mr. Polloni, looking back at your time as deputy secretary, I mean it really was a very transitional and challenging time. Um, Judge Broderick um, came down very hard on the state to comply with his orders to close Pennhurst, but really to transition people very quickly into the community. Um, did you feel that the state had the necessary recourses and infrastructure to implement his orders the way he wanted, and how did that affect you in your role as deputy secretary?
A: Well, certainly one of the things that, that develops in any given state is the, the approach to delivery of services. Some states try to be very centralized and operate everything from the state level. Now, Pennsylvania at that time was operating a regional program so that you had a region, the five counties of Philadelphia and surrounding counties and then you had the region up in the northeast and you had the western region and the central region and uh, the southwestern region. Uh, and with those regional offices being, you had deputy secretaries in each of those offices. So even there you had some dichotomy between the Deputy Secretary of the Office of Mental Retardation or the Deputy Secretary of the Office of Mental Health, and your regional deputy secretaries became turf issues in some respect. Normal. Depends on how you structure things and so on. I didn't feel any major issues over that, again, but it wasn't a battlefield. We were to have a common purpose. The deputy secretaries in the regions were deputy secretaries of mental health and mental retardation, so they weren't specific to the one disability. So in some senses the Deputy Secretary of Mental Health in Harrisburg, Secretary of Mental Retardation, uh, were strong resources to those offices who need to trust and depend on them. But them, beyond them, there was the dichotomy between the counties and the regional offices. The director of the office in Philadelphia felt very powerful being a director of an office in a large city. As the director in Alleghany County felt very strong because it was the western power. Uh, so the regional offices had their struggles of working things out with each other. The dynamics that went between those offices. Uh, but obviously people worked together because there were mandates coming down from one level to the other. And certainly the Secretary of Welfare was committed to the orders of the Court. So whether it was to the Deputy Secretary of Mental Retardation or whether it was to the Deputy Secretary in the region, it was to both. And so there was a need to work things out. The Deputy Secretary of Mental Retardation really was coordinating and organizing the resources of the central office, so it was, it was the Mel Knowltons working with the residential developers in the regions and in the counties and their effectiveness to work those things out. So it was a resource relationship as far as I was concerned. You can't get into micromanagement in that kind of stuff. Uh, so, um, at least I wasn't preoccupied then. Probably was innocent enough, didn't know what was going on. But, no I think we had a sense of those kind of things and the people who were in those roles and some of them were more affected than others. Others had different priorities than others and so some things slowed down because of personal issues, but by and large, that, that scepter that the judge held was a powerful one. But the period that I was there were the beginning of a transitional time. And then it continued for quite some time into the '80s before Pennhurst was ultimately, uh, closed, and many of the other institutions were diminished in size, significantly. Yep.
More Interview Chapters
- Early Life and Career
- Work with PARC
- Right to Education
- YOU ARE HERE: Closure of Pennhurst, Development of Residential Services, Role as Deputy Secretary
- Continuation of Ministry and Work Supporting People with Disabilities in Community
- Life After Retirement, Reflections on Career
About Peter Polloni
Minister, Former Deputy Director, Pennsylvania Office of Mental Retardation
Arc, ICF/ID, Institutions, Life-sharing, PARC, Pennhurst, Right to Education