Pro-Institution Supporters Want 1972 Fernald Court Case
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
July 14, 2004
WALTHAM, MASSACHUSETTS--Attorney Beryl Cohen knows that people housed at Fernald Developmental Center have to deal with poor building maintenance, vermin infestations and unexplained injuries and deaths.
Cohen wrote about these problems in a lengthy document he filed Wednesday with U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro.
As odd as it may seem, however, Cohen wrote about the problems as a way to battle Governor Mitt Romney's plan to close the 156-year-old facility, the oldest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
Cohen argues that the state's decision to close large institutions that house people with developmental disabilities, and move them into smaller, community-based settings, has jeopardized the health and safety of those still inside.
He and family members of some of the 242 people in Fernald want Judge Tauro to reopen a class-action lawsuit that parents had filed against the state in 1972. That suit had charged that the state's five institutions -- then housing 5,000 people with mental retardation -- were understaffed, that staff were not properly trained and that conditions were inhumane.
That suit ended in 1993 with an federal court order requiring the state to provide residents with "equal or better facilities" in the "least restrictive, most normal, appropriate residential environment."
Cohen, who was involved in the original case, is now claiming that the state has "systemically violated" the court order, and that proposed budget cuts will only make things worse for people scheduled to be moved out of Fernald.
Department of Mental Retardation Commissioner Gerald Morrissey called Cohen's claims "fundamentally not true." He pointed out that the state currently spends $165,000 annually on each resident of Fernald, where he said there are now three staff members for each resident.
Governor Romney announced in February of last year that the institution would shut down by October 2004 and its 302 residents moved to other state-run facilities or into homes in the community. The governor hinted that closing Fernald was the first step in his plan to de-institutionalize the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Fernald employees and parents of institution residents have enlisted local support to slow the moves. So far, only a handful have been transferred. One social worker estimated that 12 residents have died since Romney's announcement.
The institution has been brought to the nation's attention recently with the release earlier this year of "The State Boys Rebellion" by Michael D'Antonio. The book detailed claims by several men who say they were incorrectly labeled "feeble-minded" and confined at state facilities, including Fernald, between the 1940s and 1960s.
Among other things, dozens of youngsters at the institutions were made to eat radioactive Quaker Oats oatmeal as part of a government-sponsored Cold War experiment.
Fernald Development Center, originally called the "Massachusetts School for the Feeble Minded", was founded by social reformer Samuel Gridley Howe in 1848. It was later renamed for a former superintendent of the facility.
"Landmark Fernald case to be reopened" (Daily News Tribune)
"Group fights closing of Fernald" (Boston Globe)
"Fernald Developmental Center -- Oldest Institution In the Americas" (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)