from Tennessee's DD centers


People First of Tennessee sued to shut down the state's "developmental" lockups and now they've won


by Josie Byzek
and Lucy Gwin


from Mouth #43, the Escape issue, July 1997  


 [photo] Hugh McCleary

"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

People First of Tennessee
has won the war. Every DD institution in that state will shut down in the next five years. Arlington Developmental Center, Clover Bottom Developmental Center, Greene Valley Developmental Center and the Nat T. Winston Developmental Center -- all will close their doors forever.

 A Meeting with a Child

"The one child looked at me and said, 'Help me. Get me out of here.' He was about six or seven years old. His eyes penetrated me.
"It scared me, and I thought if I could just get that child outside ... but they are still in that institution. -- Frances Hamblen

The 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.

In 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.
In 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.
In 1991, People First board members toured Arlington to view conditions and talk to members who live there.
In June of 1991, People First's board of directors — 30 members — voted to sue the Arlington institution.
From 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.
Mouth 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.

People 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 community.
One month later, the D O J brought its own suit, with different allegations regarding that same facility, in a different federal court.
People 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 Retardation.
People 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 Arlington.

1992 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 there.

Meanwhile, 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 altogether."

For 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.
A 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.
Then "the DOJ annihilated the state's case," Beckwith says. The judge asked the DOJ to offer terms for a remedial order.
The 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."

-- Frances Hamblen



"I lived in one of those places. I wish you could go in and see what it is like."

-- Hugh McCleary


"We need to put someone else in government &emdash; someone who knows how to run it."

-- Bill Goodman, Jr.


"We started 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 institution."
-- Gatha Logan


"Call the attorneys. We are going to sue."
-- Beth Sievers


"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."
-- Bonita Scott


"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 quiet.'"
-- Hugh McCleary



"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."
-- Hugh McCleary


"The Justice 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 done."
-- Ed Sewell

Frances Hamblen


Bill Goodman, Jr.


Gatha Logan


Bonita Scott


Ed Sewell, seen here flanked by the attorneys in the case, Judith Gran at left and Michael Churchill at right

What do you mean, "remain"?

In 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.
Teams 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 board.
The 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 lockup.
In 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.)

ABC's "Prime Time Live" aired a segment on abuses of "clients" at Clover Bottom and other developmental institutions.
Deval 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.
"The 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 began.


"Now I don't want to be rude, but we have some questions that need to be answered."
Pam Bard
Speaking 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."
-- Gatha Logan



"There are parents who are behind People First, who understand what we are saying. But the others are worried about their pocketbooks."
-- Gatha Logan

The Long Haul
In 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 community.
"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.
This 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.

New 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."

When we asked People First what's next on its agenda, Frances Hamblen answered with one word: "Alabama."
We 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!"
What 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.
"And two: This has been a very long fight. You have to have the will to see it through. Period." -- Ruthie May Beckwith.


To hear what pro-institution parents are saying, click here.

This article appeared in Mouth #43, the Escape Issue, in July, 1997.



Judith Gran, one of the attorneys who shepherded these Tennessee cases through the courts, has something to say about disability rights law. Click here to read it.