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ARC brings Pennhurst litigation

Pennhurst buildings
Pennhurst State Center 1997

Early in the 1970s, the Pennsylvania's Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC) and PHILCOP brought litigation against the Commonwealth over the horrendous conditions at the Pennhurst State Center in Spring City, Pennsylvania. This case was finally settled in 1976 in a consent decree that committed the Commonwealth to closing Pennhurst. Pennhurst closed in 1987 and in its last year of operation, Judge Broderick placed undercover federal marshals in Pennhurst to protect the residents.

At the time Keystone started in 1972, there were about 5,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities living at Pennhurst. I remember getting a letter from a young woman who lived at Pennhurst asking for help in leaving. On her own, she came to Harrisburg on a bus to visit and was one of the first people to move into our apartment program in Pineford.

Dennis Felty looking out window of children's ward at Pennhurst
Dennis Felty at Pennhurst 1997

In 1997, I had the opportunity to work with Sebastian Triscari and Lisa Ramirez in the production of Every Day Lives, a video documentary for the Office of Mental Retardation about the history of intellectual disabilities in Pennsylvania. We were given the keys to Pennhurst, now abandoned, and were permitted to film at both the Pennhurst and Polk State Centers.

In producing the Every Day Lives video, we asked people to come back to the grounds of Pennhurst and interviewed them about what their lives had been like at Pennhurst. We interviewed a couple who were married after leaving and who now live in an apartment about a mile from grounds of Pennhurst and are still very much in love. A man in his 60s took me to the swing set he played on as a child. It was completely overgrown with vines. He said, "This is where I played." Another woman quietly said, "You didn't want to go to unit 6. That's where they killed you."

We entered some of Pennhurst's abandoned buildings. In the children's ward, there were toys and helmets still scattered on the floor. The sunlight came in through the windows, which were covered with bars and chain link. Records were strewn across the floor and there was a beautiful mural on the wall - a painting of Mickey Mouse visible under the peeling paint.

Ceramic insert Pennhurst State Center depicting slavery
Pennhurst Administration Building 1997

One of the many astounding discoveries at Pennhurst, during the production of Every Day Lives, was a very fine ceramic insert next to the main door of the Administration Building. The insert depicts a plantation scene with slaves picking cotton.

Since the closing of Pennhurst in 1987, photos and videos of Pennhurst and other public hospitals have been made available on several websites:

Young boy sitting on floor in day room

In Pennhurst's last year of operation, Secretary O'Bannon paid $10,000,000 in contempt of court citation fines to Judge Broderick's Court. At the same time the Commonwealth was in jeopardy of losing over a quarter billion dollars in Federal Medicaid reimbursement for overcrowding in its state centers if O'Bannon did not reduce the State Center population by 300 persons by the close of the fiscal year.

Keystone had emerged as a major resource for these placements in Dauphin County.

Young man behind chain link at institution

However, Keystone's Board decided to not proceed with its ICF/MR development because of the chaotic reimbursement environment. When informed of Keystone's position, Secretary O'Bannon asked to meet with us and said, "Dennis, don't bring any board members along." In her office, Secretary O'Bannon said with great passion, while shaking her finger, "If you back out on me I will do what ever I can to s..... Keystone." She said "I am your only customer and if you don't give me what I want, I don't want to do business with you anymore." Stan Mrozowski, the new Dauphin County MH/MR Administrator, attended the meeting. It was Stan's first day as County Administrator.

Secretary O'Bannon made a personal commitment to fix the financial problems of the ICF/MR system and with both the promises and the threats, Keystone said yes and proceeded with its ICF/MR development. At the time, Keystone had a maximum line of credit of $40,000. Our receivables ballooned to over $400,000 before reimbursement started from the department.