An Interview with Dr. Lou Brown

The deinstitutionalization era

Produced in 1987 (Run time 5:06)


Dr. Lou Brown: So what happened is that I couldn't, emotionally couldn't go on an institution. I couldn't because it would just destroy me for days and days and days, weeks. I'd be watching television, I'd hear the screams and I'd smell the smells. It was no good.

So then a couple of interesting things happened. You know, the Laconia case was over, and the Pennhurst case was winding down, and people are now all across our country are getting out, but still we had the Mansfield case, the Connecticut case. So Gilhool and Laski call and say, "Well, can you help us?" And you can't say, "No, I can't help." I'll help. I'll help you close it down. It's not that I don't want to help people in institutions. I want to help them get out, right? I don't want to help them stay there.

So the rule was, if you want to deinstitutionalize, we'll break our backs to help you. We'll drop everything, and we'll help you. So we go to testify in the Mansfield case. But I refused to go and see. They're lawyers. You know how lawyers are, they have their plans. And they're thinking about testimony. And they think they have to prepare their witnesses for the best testimony.

And they say, "Okay, we've got to go to the place." I said, "I can't do it." They say, "Look, you can't get on the stand. You can't get on the stand and testify it's a horrible place if you've never been there." I said, "Yes, I can." And they said, "Well, your testimony's not going to hold any weight." I said, "I'm sorry, but I can't go there." I mean, I really couldn't do it, you know? And so, golly. It was a legal feat.

It was a legal trick. And the way they did is that they… we talked about ideas and then other people like Jan Nisbet and Bob York and all those folks, Wes Williams, I forget who they all were. But they went on the wards and got the actual documentation of atrocities and human neglect and all the things that you know are there. I mean, if you've seen 50, you know, you go to the 51st, it's going to be there.

Ed Skarnulis: I was one of those.

Dr. Lou Brown: You were one of those? Yeah, well, so you saw it, right?

Ed Skarnulis: Yes.

Dr. Lou Brown: And yet, we won the case. We, meaning the people of the country won the case and certainly the parents. Certainly, the parents, at great cost. Oh, wow, what a cost. But what a great victory it was in Connecticut. And so that was nice. So Laski said the ARC, the Connecticut ARC had a celebration and they gave Frank Laski an award.

I mean, a lot of people made great commitments, but certainly Frank did and they wanted to acknowledge him. So they gave him this award. Frank announced… I'm sitting now next to him at this table and so he got up and gave a little acceptance speech. And he said, "That's the last institution case we're going to do."

And they had been involved in … The Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia, had been involved in fighting these places for just years. He said. "That's it. That's going to be the end."

So I breathed a sigh of relief because I can't say no to those people, you know? I just love them so much. And a couple months pass and I get this call. And it's Frank. And I said, "How are you doing?" And he says, "Well, have you ever been to Oklahoma?" I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Well, you know, they're withholding medical treatment from children with spina bifida and letting them die."

Well, we knew that and the Gannett News Service did that expose on Oklahoma's Shame, and you read that and the treatment that these people are getting, I mean it's just… And he said, "You know, we've got to do it." So, here we go again. So now we've got in this one institution in Hissom, Oklahoma with almost 600 people under age 21. Can you imagine that, in this day and age? And it's a new… You know, 20 years ago, 25-year-old facility. And so I had to go back. I had to go back.

So we go, and I go see. What did I see? People playing with their spit, slapping themselves in the head, laying on the floors in feces, crunched up in corner rocking and moaning. And it just brought it up again, you know? And so we went to trial in Oklahoma. So what am I going to do? Teach the person to not play with his spit? What are you going to do? Go into a ward and everybody's locked up? I mean, I can't see that anymore. Should I go to another one? Should I go there and help the staff do language development and pre-vocational training at the institution ward, you see?

Ed Skarnulis: I'm convinced. You got me. In fact, I may stop going to those [Inaudible]

Dr. Lou Brown: I don't know how you can. Tell them to send you a video of a warm, sensitive, delicate, interpersonal experience and then go.

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