Legislation signed - A century later, state is sorry

After more than a century of public policy that took disabled Minnesotans away from their families and home communities, and subjected them far too often to cruel treatment, state officials have made an apology. May 26 marked the official end of the long quest to have Minnesota lawmakers apologize for the past treatment of people with disabilities.

House File 1680 and Senate Fill 1135 passed unanimously before the 2010 Minnesota Legislature adjourned May 17. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the apology into law May 26. The action was hailed by disability rights advocates and family members whose loved ones spent most, if not all of their lives in state institutions. The legislation has been sought for many years as part of the work of the Remembering With Dignity project, which is part of Advocating Change Together (ACT).  

Remembering With Dignity (RWD) has marked 7,300 of 13,000 numbered grave markers at now-closed Minnesota state institutions. The project is continuing to place headstones with former residents’ names, birth and death dates on what have been anonymous graves. Passage of the apology legislation is seen as providing a key impetus to continue this work.

ACT and RWD shaft were pleased with the state action. In a statement, the two organizations said, “For most of the 20th century, persons with mental illness, developmental disabilities and other disabilities were institutionalized in Minnesota; their treatment was often less than humane and frequently very cruel.”

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, authored the legislation in the Senate.  Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, was the House author.

Marty said that after 13 years of pushing for its passage, it is time for the state to acknowledge that terrible injustices were done to tens of thousands of Minnesotans who were punished for having mental illnesses or developmental and other disabilities. “I am very pleased that the state, on a bipartisan basis, was willing to make this apology,” he said. “For over 100 years Minnesota had public policies that took people with mental illness and disabilities away from their families and communities and committed them to state institutions. In those institutions, some were forced to work without pay, some were subjected to medical experiments and procedures without their consent, some were subjected to punitive shock treatments, aversive treatments and isolation,” he added. “The Senate Health Committee heard from adults who spend their childhood locked in an institution, away from their families, sometimes being cruelly punished for things beyond their control. They were denied the dignity that every person deserves. This is a shameful part of Minnesota’s history.”

One of those who testified before a House committee was Manny Steinman, who spent much of his childhood at the Faribault State Hospital. Steinman told committee members that he remembers the kind teachers, counselors and other staff who cared for him, as well as the friends he made before leaving the facility in 1968. But Steinman, who has bipolar disorder, also recalls unpleasant times during his stay and cruel treatment. He once required stitches after a night watchman hit him over the head. “I never got an apology for it,” he said.

More than 40 years later, Steinman was among those backing HF 1680. The bill acknowledges ways in which some patients’ quality of life was diminished, including subjection to frontal lobotomies, isolation and medical experiments. The resolution also recognizes the painful decisions that faced parents like the Steinmans, who were forced to choose between institutionalizing their child or providing all of his required care themselves.

“It would be great if you could pass a few simple words: ‘I am sorry for the treatment (you) received,” said Carol Robinson, a board member for ACT. “It would mean a lot to us.”

Marty and disability activists recalled the long struggle to get the apology legislation passed. As a state representative in 1997, Betty McCollum withdrew a bill after amendments on the House floor threatened to water down the language or even give it the opposite effect. McCollum now represents Minnesota in Congress.

Opponents feared a formal apology from the Legislature would prompt former patients or their families to sue the state, something that could happen with or without the bill, said Rick Cardenas, co-director of ACT. Others said at the time they saw the bill as insulting to those who had worked in state hospitals. But supporters said that lawsuits and insults weren’t their intent.

Others said the bill insulted state institution employees. That was also a concern raised by Pawlenty in a letter to state leaders. He said the resolution “negatively paints with a very board brush the actions of state employees, who, in most cases, took actions based in good faith and scientific understanding at that time.”

Many states have issued apologies, not only for institutionalization in general, but for specific practices like those listed in the Minnesota bill, Cardenas said. He does not know of other states being taken to court over their apologies.

“By offering this public apology, the state acknowledges its past mistakes, and helps put closure on this era,” said Marty. This apology may not seem important to some, but for people who were wrongfully committed to these institutions earlier in their lives, this apology is of great importance. For the individuals and families affected, they are finally hearing the state say these meaningful words, ‘we’re sorry’.”

Public officials played a role in demonizing people with disabilities and mental illness, said Luther Granquist, a retired attorney whose successful class-action suit on behalf of people with mental retardation in the 1970s contributed to the closing of state hospitals.

In a 1925 speech to state officials, the superintendent of the Faribault facility described what he called “the menace of the feeble-minded. He basically said these people are a menace, we need to confine them,” Granquist said.

The newly signed law includes not only an apology, but a commitment from the state to provide future assistance to people with disabilities. Cardenas sees this provision as especially important in light of looming budget cuts to health and human services.  n

(This article includes information from ACT and Session Weekly, a Minnesota House publication.)