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Employee interview, January 18, 2008

The following interview was granted by a former employee of Pennhurst.  BSMarcia is an outspoken supporter of Pennhurst who believes, as many former employees and residents do, that Pennhurst got a bad rap and there were other intentions involved with the lawsuit that eventually closed the doors of Pennhurst forever.   The interview below explains her thoughts and viewpoints regarding this in great detail. 

Q: How long did you work at Pennhurst?

A: 11 years

Q: What was your job function?

A: MRA1 (mental retardation aide 1)

Q: What were the living conditions like?

The living conditions were ok when I started. (mid 70's) They steadily improved over the years. Renovations were done to make the wards more homelike. The sleeping area became divided up into cubicles were anywhere from 1 to 4 slept. The dayrooms got better furniture t.v.'s etc.

Q: In your opinion, did Pennhurst assist with providing a positive learning experience for the residents or do you feel it’s programs and resources caused more harm than good?

A:  I think that many programs were provided for the residents. Some benefited more than others just because of their level of retardation. I can only speak for the time that I spent there and that is that the programs were all designed to provide a positive experience for a client. Higher functioning clients benefited far more than a profoundly retarded client. All clients had to be involved in some sort of programming whether they benefited or not. I can give you an example of how well a client benefited from programming. We got a 12 or 13 yr old Downs Syndrome girl from a private facility where she resided most of her life. She was still in diapers and drank all of her pureed meals from a baby bottle. She was given intensive programming to get her potty trained and taught how to chew and with in weeks was eating a soft diet on her own from a tray. Then there is the other side where another client was given round the clock programming because he repeatedly would slap his face causing a wound that would never heal. He normally wore a helmet with a face mask so he couldn't slap but someone decided this was no longer acceptable and he needed to be trained to just stop slapping. So for about 3months this kid had to have one to one supervision that involved holding his arm down when he tried to slap which was about every second of a day. This was a total waste of time and waste of an aide. In the end he went back to wearing a helmet. There was also the case of (famous one) of the boy who's mother refused to have her son programmed at all. I never understood that one because she didn't hesitate to jump in on the lawsuit that , in part, alleged that adequate programs weren't available.

Q: What was a normal day for a resident at Pennhurst?

That would depend on the ward you worked on . For the kids, where I worked for a few years, it was lights on at 5:30. This was a ward with about 50 kids, ambulatory and non-ambulatory. They were gotten up, specialed (potty), given breakfast, dressed and off to school until around 2:30. Those who didn't go to school that day would probably have a Dr.s or Dentist appointment. When I started there the Units were identified by levels of retardation and other handicaps. My Unit was comprised of only children. Later they changed the Units around so that buildings became the Unit and that would be comprised of all levels and ages. So the routine in my Unit was basically the same . I'm not sure what was involved on other wards. I switched to 3rd shift after a few years so there wasn't much programming to speak of. Unless it was a bad behavior type thing. But over all 3rd shift was relatively quiet.

Q: What's your opinion on the lawsuit that eventually closed Pennhurst?

I think it was a tragedy. I think alot of parents were duped into joining in on it because they thought that they would get more funding for Pennhurst not close it down. I knew parents that were genuinely upset with what ended up happening. The only thing that I would agree with is that there were clients that should never had gone there to begin with and they deserved to live somewhere else. But most of them were old and didn't want to go anywhere else. For the majority of severely and profoundly retarded I don't think it would make much of a difference where they lived.

Q: Why do you believe Pennhurst got such a bad reputation?

A: Sensational journalism for sure. Once that started I think Pennhurst was put under a microscope so to speak. Lots of things were blown way out of proportion. But there were problems for sure and those problems were reported. Accurate or not.

Q: What’s your take on Bill Baldini’s “Suffer the Children” series?

Well it was a period in time when Pennhurst was horribly understaffed and not alot of money was being given to institutions. I'm sure all institutions were similar. I guess it could be more disturbing to some people to see some one in restraints. I'm sure there was a reason other then just for the heck of it. Also there are just certain behaviors associated with profoundly retarded folks that is pretty stereotypical. Shuffling, rocking, etc. I don't know I was pretty young when that series was first aired and I sort of remember being fairly horrified at it. But I don't remember anything being that grim when I worked there. I think probably Unit 9 (I think) up in New Horizons building probably would have been similar because they were so profoundly retarded. They wore state clothes alot only because they were constantly wetting them or ripping them up.

Q: What do you think of Roland Johnson? Do you feel a lot of what he wrote and said was made up or perhaps he was prompted to write/say the things he spoke out about Pennhurst for?

A:  I don't know anything about Roland Johnson. I read some of what he had to say. His account may be accurate and then again he could have been influenced by someone prompting him. I wasn't there. What I do know is that some mildly retarded people can be easily influenced to say whatever you want them to say. I saw it at Pennhurst and I heard it out in the real world.

Q: Do you know of any residents that seem "normal" that were committed there? In other words, were there people in Pennhurst that really shouldn’t have been there?

A:  Sure, some of the older guys and one younger kid who everyone loved to death. Had some sort of genetic disease that he was born normal but was slowly losing alot of his abilities. It was sad but I guess the family couldn't afford to put him somewhere else. The older guys were put there as juvenial delinquents . I would say anyone that was mildly retarded probably would have benefited from living somewhere else had there been that option when they were put there. There probably wasn't anywhere else.

Q: What made you leave Pennhurst? Was it because it closed?

A:  Yes I opted to retire rather than face the same BS somewhere else.

Q: This question will only make sense if you saw the movie or know what I’m talking about but here goes anyways : Have you ever seen Frederick Wiseman’s documentary called “Titicut Follies” and what are your thoughts about it?

A:  Nope never saw it.

Q: Any comments or stories you wish to add?

A:  Nah, my heads about to explode now remembering all this stuff.


Thank You Very Much for the Interview!