A Personal Remembrance of This Era by Jill Waite

In 1974, shortly after I graduated from college, I took a job as a Psychiatric Technician I at Redfield State School and Hospital for the Mentally Retarded. (Yes, that was the official, though politically incorrect name of the institution.) I was assigned to a newly-created program that was supposed to deal with "problem children." (And yes, some of the "children" I worked with were nearly 30!)

The Program Director wanted to use principles of behaviorism to reduce "problem behaviors," like swearing. We were told to keep track of each time that a child swore, and after he had sworn 5 times, we were required to place him in a straight jacket and lock him in a room the size of closet (about 5' x 7') for 3 days. The child was to be given only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk for meals and could only leave to go to the bathroom. I tried to convince the Director that this plan would not achieve its goal because it was based on punishment instead of reward, and punishment is generally counterproductive. In addition, the punishment was only administered after 5 episodes of the target behavior instead of being administered immediately. Finally, I cautioned that I feared that the confinement was unconstitutional because it was massively disproportionate compared to the conduct that triggered it. The Director didn't care. The program was implemented anyway.

I had bonded with one of the children, a boy named P. L., when I noticed that he eagerly awaited the arrival of the newspaper every day so he could study the sports scores. This made me think I might be able to teach him math, so I showed him the multiplication table. He learned it in less than an hour! I was baffled about how a boy that was so bright could have been classified as "mentally retarded," so I dug into his background. Apparently, his parents had been urged to place him there as an infant, because he did not respond like a normal child, and he had leg deformities. No one bothered to check his hearing until he was 12. As it turns out, he had significant hearing loss. P. L. wasn't mentally retarded, he was deaf!

Unfortunately, by the time they caught the misdiagnosis, his family had moved to another state, and no one seemed to care about him. I was told that his chance of ever being released was slim to none, because, by his age, most kids like him would have developed "institutional behaviors," (for example, homosexual behavior) that would make it impossible for them to be accepted in the outside world. I was also told that his parents, if they could be located, would probably refuse to let him go to a group home because as long as he was institutionalized, they could accumulate social security disability payments, which would go to them upon his death, but which would be paid to the group home if his placement changed.

I vividly remember the day I had to put P. L. into a straightjacket. He had sworn for the fifth time, so my co-worker and I told him he would have to put on a straightjacket and spend the next 3 days in "time out." P. L. had witnessed another boy's confinement, so he decided not to go down without a fight. He took off his metal leg brace and tried to hit us with it. I held him while my co-worker got it away from him. He reacted by biting my hand, and I swore at him! I never swore at work, but couldn't help doing it when I was being bitten, even though I recognized how ironic it was, under the circumstances.

When P. L. was released after 3 days, the first thing he did was to put his arm around me and tell me he would never, ever bite me again! I felt this showed how far off base the Director's Program was. P.L. did not say he would never swear again – that behavior wasn't even on his radar. What he feared was that he would lose the friendship of one of the very few people on earth who had ever bothered to show any interest in him. I knew I couldn't go on following orders that I believed were wrong on every level, so I contacted our Union Representative. He started work on the problem as I was leaving for Christmas vacation.

When I returned, I learned that the Institution had responded to the complaint by firing all my program co-workers! We were all probationary employees, so there was no recourse. When the Union Rep pointed out that we might have a discrimination lawsuit, since it was clear-cut retaliation for our complaint, they realized they hadn't fired me yet, since I was out of town. The Administration knew I had already been accepted for the Spring Semester at Baylor Law School, so the decision was to keep me on until I left on my own. The program was scrapped, and I was told to write a program to teach mentally retarded kids how to tell time instead. I couldn't leave for Law School without taking further action. I contacted a college friend who was a journalist and asked him to do an expose. As a result of my friends' article, the Superintendent and the Program Director were fired. Years later I heard that the Program Director passed off the Time Telling Program I wrote as his own work and used it to get into graduate school!

Jill M. Waite