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Suffer the Youth of Pennhurst State Hospital

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, 1934.

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, 1934.

An Institution for the "Feeble-Minded"

Originally called Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, Pennhurst State School and Hospital was built in the early 1900s. The first buildings went up from 1903 to 1908. A person labeled "Patient Number 1" was admitted on November 23, 1908, when the institution opened. This was the first indication that patients would be losing their identity and respect.

Children who were not perfect and considered "feeble-minded" were shut away from society, their families, and everything they knew. There was one little boy, Johnny, who was there in 1968 because he was considered "delinquent and uneducated."

Which Children Were Admitted?

Children were admitted to this institute if they were strabismus (a visual defect in which one eye cannot focus with the other on an object because of an imbalance of the eye muscles), blind, or had other defective sight or hearing problems; were mute (or even semi-mute) or had imperfect speech; were paralytic or epileptic; had an imperfect gait, imperfect comprehension, or a deformity of the face, limbs, feet, or head including microcephaly (abnormally small head) or hydrocephaly (a congenital condition in which an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the cerebral ventricles causes enlargement of the skull and compression of the brain, destroying much of the neural tissue). Even children who had "offensive habits" were admitted.

Every child has a right to explore meadows and blow dandelion seeds.

Every child has a right to explore meadows and blow dandelion seeds.

Were These Reasons Sufficient?

I find it hard to believe that these conditions were sufficient reasons to shut children away from society. The Commissions for the Care of the Feeble-Minded, which was appointed by the legislature in 1913, stated that the disabled were unfit for citizenship and posed a menace to the peace, and they thus recommended a program of custodial care. In the Biennial Report to the legislature submitted by the Board of Trustees, Pennhurst's Chief Physician quoted Henry H. Goddard, a leading eugenicist, in his report:

Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal. The general public, although more convinced today than ever before that it is a good thing to segregate the idiot or the distinct imbecile, they have not as yet been convinced as to the proper treatment of the defective delinquent, which is the brighter and more dangerous individual.

— Henry H. Goddard, Chief Physician of Pennhurst

"Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal." This is heartbreaking to read, and to know that this belief was ever accepted as truth is like a sledgehammer hitting the Liberty Bell.

Pennhurst State Hospital Administration Building, July 2010.

Pennhurst State Hospital Administration Building, July 2010.

1968 Report Revealed Shocking Conditions

In 1968 a shocking and ground-breaking report by NBC10 exposed the sad conditions and shameful care of patients at Pennhurst. There were still 2,800 children at the institute—some had grown up there and were now adults. Abandoned as children, they had no one to love them or help them. Hyperactive children and delinquent children were admitted and treated as insane or idiots.

Bill Baldini Investigation

Bill Baldini, who was the journalist who went to Pennhurst and investigated, interviewed doctors and patients and exposed the conditions, could not finish the final segment. He collapsed under sheer exhaustion and was unable to complete his final report. Baldini deserves respect and appreciation for his dedication and courage in what he accomplished.

Badini's 1968 documentary led to cases presented in the Supreme Court about conditions at Pennhurst State School and Hospital and allowed the nation to see the way the residents at Pennhurst lived—these people had broken spirits, they were unloved, uncared for, and their constitutional rights were denied them.

A class-action case against Pennhurst State School and Hospital was ruled by U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Broderick in 1977, where the institution was found guilty of violating the patient's constitutional rights. Pennhurst State School was forced to close in 1987 following several allegations of abuse, beginning a deinstitutionalization process that would last several years.

Its 460 patients were discharged or transferred to other facilities. Pennhurst was responsible for discussing treatment plans with each patient's family to decide what would be the best for each patient.

Halderman V. Pennhurst State School and Hospital

The allegations of abuse led to the first lawsuit of its kind in the United States. Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital asserted that the mentally retarded have a constitutional right to living quarters and education.

Terry Lee Halderman had been a resident of Pennhurst, and upon release, she filed suit in the district court on behalf of herself and other residents of the institution. The complaint alleged that conditions at Pennhurst were unsanitary, inhumane, and dangerous, violating the 14th amendment and that Pennhurst used cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments, as well as the Pennsylvania Mental Health and Retardation Act of 1966 (MH/MR).

While the District Court agreed that certain of the patient's rights had been violated, upon appeal, the case was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the federal courts cannot order state officials to comply with state laws due to the 11th amendment.

Pennhurst was closed in 1987.


What was meant to be a place of beauty and help for the mentally challenged is now a haunting place of sorrow and bad memories.

Grave Concerns Association

Laurel Lemke of Grave Concerns Association in Lakewood, Washington, is a valued friend of mine. It is Laurel who led me to the history of Pennhurst State School and Hospital. It is because of Laurel and the people who work with her—it is because of the people who have suffered in the past due to the stigma of society regarding the mentally ill—it is because of the people today who still suffer from mental illness and do not get proper care, love and help, that I have dedicated my time and effort to write this article and others to follow. Laurel, you and your co-workers are truly Angels on Earth.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2010 Phyllis Doyle Burns