from Tennessee's DD
People First of
Tennessee sued to shut down the state's "developmental"
lockups and now they've won
by Josie Byzek
and Lucy Gwin
#43, the Escape issue, July 1997
"It doesn't seem
right. You have to go through court to get people out
when they don't want to be there. You've got to go to the
judge, you've got to go to court, you've got to raise the
devil to get something done."
Hugh McCleary, People First
Meeting with a Child
one child looked at me and said, 'Help me. Get me out of
here.' He was about six or seven years old. His eyes
scared me, and I thought if I could just get that child
outside ... but they are still in that institution.
child Frances speaks about, and 2,000 more adults and children
people who have been locked away in four different state institutions
for people with disabilities all will be free by the end of the
year 2002. And People First did it.
1989, People First of Tennessee made a presentation on the subject of
self advocacy to residents of Arlington Developmental Center. The residents
voted to join People First.
1991, the U.S. Department of Justice (D O J) investigated complaints against
Arlington Developmental Center from parents and ex-employees. People First
met with the DOJ about that investigation, then met with Tennessee's Commissioner
of Mental Health/Mental Retardation to ask about the D O J's Letter of
Findings on the Arlington center.
1991, People First board members toured Arlington to view conditions and
talk to members who live there.
June of 1991, People First's board of directors 30 members
voted to sue the Arlington institution.
June until December of 1991 when the suit was filed, members of People
First visited the institutions, learned the law, became familiar with
the state and community forces that make lockups possible, planned with
their attorneys, and kept their planned suit a secret.
note to Guinness Book of World Records: We nominate the board of People
First of Tennessee as holding a world record for keeping a secret. Thirty
people kept an important secret for six months. Not one word of the coming
suit leaked out during that time.
First filed a class action suit on behalf of its members in
federal court in December, 1991. The suit alleged that the
civil rights of residents of the Arlington Developmental
Center were being systematically violated. People First
asked the court for a specific remedy: that residents of
Arlington Developmental Center be allowed to move into the
month later, the D O J brought its own suit, with different allegations
regarding that same facility, in a different federal court.
First then had to combat retaliation for filing its suit by
what is called the "corporate guardian" of the people of
Arlington Center and by the state's Division of Mental
First made -- and is still making -- presentations at
various state agency meetings regarding the suit. Meanwhile,
its members made visits to its members incarcerated at
was a very big year for People First of Tennessee. While its
members continued their ongoing support to members who live
at the state's developmental lockups, they also launched a
media campaign for freedom, initiated a Partners in
Policymaking project to educate the public about community
living, and held the first of its "Lest We Forget" services
for people who live in institutions and people who have died
the D O J -- which traditionally settles its suits against "developmental"
institutions when states promise to improve conditions, prepared to negotiate.
"We wanted a community remedy," [former] People First adviser
Ruthie Beckwith says. "The Department of Justice doesn't have a history
of seeking community remedies -- of moving people out of institutions
its own part, the state of Tennessee fiercely resisted the idea of settling
the suit. As a result, the D O J was forced to take the suit to trial.
This was the first suit they had taken to trial under the Civil Rights
of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). In 1994, the DOJ won.
federal judge had put the People First suit against
Arlington on hold pending the outcome of the DOJ trial. So
it was a long waiting game.
"the DOJ annihilated the state's case," Beckwith says. The
judge asked the DOJ to offer terms for a remedial order.
terms they came up with stunned People First. If the
Department of Justice had its way, 200 people would move out
of the Arlington center. An equal number would remain.
"I want all
those places to be closed."
"I lived in
one of those places. I wish you could go in and see what
it is like."
"We need to
put someone else in government &emdash; someone who knows
how to run it."
Bill Goodman, Jr.
going inside the Arlington institution and some of us saw
some things they didn't like. We sent more people and
they saw more things they didn't like.
"We took it to
our board, to see what we could do. The board decided to
sue them, to get them shut down. So first we sued
Arlington, then Clover Bottom, then every
attorneys. We are going to sue."
"The state takes
little problems and makes them into big problems. The
state should see that every person gets what they need to
live a normal life."
"We fought a
battle. The Parent and Guardians Association went up
against us. That one lady was something like a hell-cat
to me. She took me out in the hall at court and sat me
down and said, 'You're in court. You'd better be
"People who are
in institutions need to be out on their own. There are
way too many people in institutions."
Bill Goodman, Jr.
"I meant what I
said. I'm going to raise a stink. No, don't leave one
person in there."
Department was against us. They didn't believe in what we
were doing. I had a bunch of questions they wouldn't
answer. They didn't want to work with us. They are now
coming to see our side of the story, since they saw so
many people die.
"We had more than
fifty people die in there. They get beatings. They get
sexual abuse. They get neglect. They die.
"But now the word
is getting around about what we did. I've been traveling
to other states &emdash; Alabama, Wisconsin, Illinois.
They want to learn from what we've
Ed Sewell, seen here
flanked by the attorneys in the case, Judith Gran at left
and Michael Churchill at right
What do you
1995, the federal court named People First of Tennessee as
class representative for the adults and children who live at
Arlington Developmental Center and joined the People First
case to the DOJ case. The DOJ had begun an investigation of
the three other developmental institutions in Tennessee.
from the board of People First toured each state
developmental center, met with the superintendents of those
institutions, and reported back to the People First
federal judge ordered settlement negotiations include all
parties to the suit: the DOJ, People First, the state of
Tennessee, and parents of people in the Arlington
December of 1995, People First filed a second class action
lawsuit, this time against Tennessee's Clover Bottom
Developmental Center. Meanwhile, the state of Tennessee was
racking up contempt of court fines for its foot-dragging on
the terms of the earlier, easier, DOJ-negotiated settlement
in the Arlington case. (By the time of the final settlement,
those fines had reached approximately $2 million.)
"Prime Time Live" aired a segment on abuses of "clients" at
Clover Bottom and other developmental institutions.
Patrick, Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights,
invited representatives from People First of Tennessee and
from self-advocacy organizations in three other states to
meet with him on Valentine's Day, 1996. "It was the
Valentine's Day Massacre," Beckwith laughs.
head of the Litigation Division came into that meeting all
sweet and condescending and told our people she would be
taking them for a little tour of the department." The fur
flew. Pam Bard of Speaking for Ourselves of Pennsylvania
said, "Now I don't want to be rude, but we have some
questions that need to be answered." Justice answered.
Justice listened. A very different sort of a relationship
"Now I don't want
to be rude, but we have some questions that need to be
for Ourselves of PA
"All of People
First is trying to watch out for the disabled people in
Tennessee and around the world. We are like the
watchdogs. We'd rather not have that job."
parents who are behind People First, who understand what
we are saying. But the others are worried about their
the summer of 1996, the federal court ordered settlement
negotiations in the Clover Bottom suit and expanded the case
to include the two other developmental centers in Tennessee.
The focus came clearer then: this case was about freedom
from institutions, about living in the community. People
First soon created the Homecoming Corps to begin connecting
people who are moving from the institutions to the
"Some of the parents were outraged about us trying to close
the institutions because the institutions are where they
dumped their kids. They didn't want to be bothered with
them. It comes down to money. They didn't want to spend
money on their kids.
year, the People First Compliance Review Team, bearing an
order from the federal court, began its monitoring of
Tennessee's compliance with the Arlington remedial order and
gave its first testimony regarding that compliance. Freedom
is on its way.
Hampshire, Maine, Alaska, Rhode Island, Vermont &emdash; all
have closed their state developmental institutions. New
Mexico and Wyoming are both down to 30 people left living in
developmental lockups, and Michigan is down to fewer than
100. Tennessee is the first southern state to free its
people dis-labeled as "retarded."
we asked People First what's next on its agenda, Frances
Hamblen answered with one word: "Alabama."
asked another question. Can the people of any state do what
People First of Tennessee has done? Our speaker phone jumped
on its stand when the People Firsters we interviewed gave
their emphatic "YES!"
guidance would they offer to anyone who tries? "There are
two things, really. One: Whoever does it has to be connected
to the people on the inside. You can't speak for them.
People must be involved in their own liberation.
two: This has been a very long fight. You have to have the
will to see it through. Period." -- Ruthie May Beckwith.