She recalls the doctor’s words of advice about Brian, “I’m going to paint you a very black picture. You’ll miss him and you’ll remember, but he won’t.”
In the first half of the 20th century and beyond, doctors counselled parents of children with disabilities to place their daughter or son in the custody of a state-run facility. Sandra Blair’s son Brian was seven when he entered Muscatatuck State School in the early 1960s. She recalls the doctor’s words of advice about Brian, “I’m going to paint you a very black picture. You’ll miss him and you’ll remember, but he won’t.” The doctor, she said, “assured me that it was the best thing to do, and it was hard on us. I felt like I was burying him.” Brian would receive family visits, but it was not uncommon for these placements to involve a total break in family ties.
As institutional populations peaked in the 1950s and 60s, revelations of their neglect and abuse captured the nation’s attention. Meanwhile in Indiana, institutionalized individuals were subjected to pervasive mistreatment that included physical and chemical restraints. Paul Shankland was an aide at Fort Wayne State Hospital in the 1960s. In retrospect he recognized that “essentially everybody operated on the assumption that the people that lived there were subhuman.” Recounting her visits as a child to her brother at Central State Hospital, Erika Steuterman said “I remember him coming out through the door of this big brick edifice, because we were never allowed to go inside. And he had bruises all over his arms. And he had scabs. I just knew that something evil was going on there.”
“Essentially everybody operated on the assumption that
the people that lived there were subhuman.”
Public awareness of these rights violations would fuel the engine of change.1966 was the year legislators extended provisions of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act to employees of public residential institutions. At Indiana institutions such as New Castle and Muscatatuck State Hospitals, farming operations using resident labor were phased out by 1969. Dorothy Stewart recalled working with residents classified as lower functioning than she was. In 1950, Stewart had been admitted to Muscatatuck State Hospital at the age of 18 after a brush with the law. She was put to work in numerous jobs that were later done by paid staff, including minding babies in the nursery. “Back then the clients were helpers. We helped take care of them.”
Although institutional populations had been declining, thousands of Hoosiers with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD) were still confined within large nursing facilities in the 1980s. Federal nursing home reform legislated in 1987 reduced the number of people with IDD in these facilities nationally, but Indiana was slow to implement change. As of 2013, there were still over 1800 people with IDD living in Indiana facilities of 16 beds or more. Progress in closure of Indiana's large developmental centers would come sooner. Indiana became a national leader in this area early in the new millenium.