Former institution residents hear long-awaited apology

A written apology is nice. A spoken apology is a human connection.   

In May, the Minnesota Legislature passed a resolution that officially apologized to people who received mistreatment while living in state institutions in the last century. Two dozen former residents of Minnesota state hospitals and their supporters gathered in St. Paul this fall to hear the state’s apology in person, and talk about their lives since leaving the institutions.   

The apology ceremony took place at the annual meeting of Advocating Change Together (ACT), at Black Bear Crossings in St. Paul. Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville) and Rep. Karen Clark (DFL-Minneapolis) were on hand to give the apology in person.

For Ken Bachman, one-time resident of Cambridge State Hospital, it was important to hear someone say it to his face. “I glad I lived to see this day,” said Bachman. He pointed out several friends and fellow residents from his days long ago when he was living in the institution. “That guy there,” he said, “he was in Cottage Eleven with me. There are a lot of us left.”   

Kicking off the program, Marty faced the honored guests, a group of more than 20 former residents of state hospitals, as he spoke. “I just want to say, as a member of the Senate, as somebody who offered the apology resolution, I want to say on behalf of the state, we’re sorry. We did some things that were bad …. A lot of you suffered from the harm that was done. And it’s time to say, before we can move on, we want to say we’re sorry.”   

Each former resident was also invited to speak. Passing around the hand-held microphone, the guest took turns coming to the front of the room to share. The many horrible stories of their past mistreatment stood out in stark contrast to the lives these same people are living today. “I did not like it in Cambridge,” said Melissa Metzdorf of St. Paul, “because they hit me with a whip and they treated me so badly, and I did not like it at all.”   

Patty Ann Wallace of Duluth recalled getting her head slammed on the floor. “I didn’t like how the staff were mistreating us…with cruel behavior and violent behavior towards us. They treated us like animals. They didn’t treat us like human beings. And I was telling them, ‘Stop doing it and let us be.’ And they took my head and hit me on the floor. Real hard. And picked me up and rolled me across the room. And they put me down on the floor on my stomach, and they pushed me down on my spine. I got a damaged spine. I still can’t keep my head up straight very good because of the abuses.”   

Like Marty, Clark focused on the future. “The other part of the resolution that’s really important is that we’re saying that in the future, we’re going to make sure we don’t make this same kind of bad mistake again. … we are committed to making sure that any future services offered to people with disabilities be offered in the least restrictive manner . We’re very serious about that, and will help provide the resources for that,” she said.   

ACT’s Remembering With Dignity program has been working since 1994 to shed light on the stories of past mistreatment, mark the anonymous graves of those who died in state institutions, and get the state to apologize.   

“We felt that for this apology to really have power, it had to be spoken to the face of the people who were mistreated,” said ACT Co-Director Mary Kay Kennedy. “Some of these folks are still alive, now living in the community and some are on our board. We put out the word and got many of them to come to our banquet as honored guests.”   

Each honored guest was also featured in an apology poster, with a portrait and a short quote about then and now. “Sometimes they’d give me a cold shower if I did something wrong,” stated the poster that features Larry Lubbers of West St. Paul. He once was a resident of Faribault State Hospital. “It wasn’t very nice. Today I live in my own apartment.”   

Those who attended the Oct. 29 program were clearly moved. “What a powerful program,” said Jaimie Bennett of Minneapolis. “It felt like a truth and reconciliation commission. I was thinking of all the people I wish would have been in that room to hear those powerful, and awful, and sometimes uplifting stories — those many voices, some hard to understand, some hard to listen to, but all full of power.”   

ACT continues to collect stories and photos from former residents of state hospitals, as they build a poster display. Anyone who has a story to share, or know someone who does, can contact Rick Cardenas, Advocating Change Together, cardenas@selfadvocacy.org

-Bret Helsa is from Advocating Change Together

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