Growing Up in an Institution
by Roberta Gallant of Self Advocates Becoming Empowered
Disclaimer: The following contains the author’s recount of graphic events and may not be suitable for all ages. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Arc or the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
At 9:45 pm on May 4, 1951, Mom delivered me at the Saint Louis Hospital in Berlin, New Hampshire. Entering this world was complex. During birth the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, depriving my brain of oxygen. This trauma severely affected my brain’s development. Seventeen months later, on September 2, 1952, my sister Jocelyn entered the world. Five days after an uneventful birth, she developed a blood clot in her brain. Later, a doctor diagnosed both Jocelyn and me with significant intellectual disabilities. Our interesting lives began in this manner.
After the doctor’s diagnosis, Mom and Dad admitted Jocelyn and me to the Laconia State School and Training Center. That miserable day – October 27, 1956, haunted me. Jocelyn and I were four and five respectively. Many parents sent their children to this institution. In the 1950s and early 1960s, parents frequently placed their children with disabilities in institutions. During this time period, every state in America had residential institutions for people with intellectual disabilities and other significant challenges. The Laconia State School and Training Center was the institution in New Hampshire where our parents sent us. They, like many others, did not have the knowledge and skills to take care of their own children with disabilities. They already had two sons and one infant daughter and money was tight. Our parents opted to place us in the Laconia State School and Training Center.
Abandonment at the Laconia State School and Training Center devastated me and Jocelyn. We hated leaving our home in Berlin, New Hampshire. Jocelyn and I never imagined that our parents intended to leave us at Laconia State School the way they did. Our parents’ abandonment frightened us. Our parents visited rarely. Jocelyn and I felt extreme homesickness every day and night. I constantly threw tantrums and sobbed. Our distant parents infuriated us when they left us with strangers at Laconia State School.
Life at the Laconia State School and Training Center treated us roughly. Some of the attendants and residents sexually, verbally, emotionally, and physically assaulted me. The staff members justified their actions stating I misbehaved or acted “silly”. The attendants and residents there struck me in many ways. They implemented their hands, feet, coat hangers, wet towels and clothes, mop and broom handles, leather belts, straps, rulers, yardsticks, and stainless steel serving utensils. They bullied me. They pulled my hair, spat at me, and called me names. They bit and pinched my arms and other body parts causing me pain. The employees and supervisors at the institution threw buckets of cold water on me – clothes and all. They did this claiming my actions expressed aggressive behavior. “Cold water”, they said, “Will calm you down.” They put straitjackets on me for behaving violently.
Not only the other residents, but also Jocelyn and I, suffered these abuses. Sometimes, I watched the attendants inflict the same acts to the other residents. These residents screamed and cried. When residents messed their pants the employees rubbed the feces and urine on their noses with the messy underpants. The quality of life at this facility was unpleasant.
Every resident possessed unique behavior. I picked up weird habits from many of the residents. Some of these quirky behaviors included picking my nose, sneezing and coughing without covering my mouth, sticking pencils and pens in my ear canals, and burping and expelling gas without excusing myself. I bounced all over the furniture pieces: couches, beds, tables and chairs. Additionally, I pulled hair from my head and played with myself. These behaviors caused the staff to react by slapping my face and shoving me up against the walls.
Personal belongings were not safe. The employees, supervisors, and residents took advantage of me for my money and snack-food items. They stole my possessions: my clothing and footwear, prayer beads, a harmonica, jewelry, money, toys, pens, pencils, crayons, and coloring books. Some of these items were the birthday and Christmas gifts from my parents and some of the attendants. Jocelyn faced the same experiences. When I placed a grievance to the administration office, no one helped me. This whole situation made me angry!
When I was age 12, people at Laconia State School put me to work in the dormitories. These dormitories included King, Murphy, Powell, Keyes, and Duby buildings. Part of my daily responsibilities included personal care for the residents and janitorial tasks. I performed jobs such as changing babies, feeding the residents, dressing adults and children, and helping them with their personal hygiene. I helped toilet both adults and children. When I finished helping the residents, people found me sweeping and mopping the floors, scrubbing toilets, sinks, and windows, bagging dirty clothes, and cleaning the kitchen. For all of my duties the supervisor paid me only five cents an hour! At this time, the minimum wage was $1.25.
The New Hampshire state laws did not provide people at Laconia State School opportunities to receive elementary and secondary educational services. During my childhood, the teaching staff made me color, cut pictures from books and magazines and occupy myself with paper dolls. In the classrooms, the teachers taught me almost nothing. Not all of the attendants behaved abusively. Some attendants cared about the residents, I convinced these employees to help me learn how to read and write better. I met with many challenges on the path to obtaining my education.
The Laconia State School and Training Center endangered me and Jocelyn. Some employees and administrators burned residents with cigarettes just to create problems. Fortunately, the staff never scorched us with their cigarettes, although they abused me in other ways. As a defense mechanism I acted out violently and aggressively. I feared others endangering my life. Dying young would have been a terrible tragedy for my family members, relatives, and friends. If I did not injure others, they would have physically harmed me. I transformed my behavior to avoid prison and to attract more friends.
On November 13, 1979, Jocelyn, left the Laconia State School and Training Center and entered the community to live a better life. At that time she was 23 years old. As I watched Jocelyn pack her belongings to prepare for moving into the community, I found myself overcome with jealousy. I stayed at the facility for another two years and nine months. On June 22, 1981, I left. After other three or four years, I finally reunited with Jocelyn.
From the time I left the Laconia State School and Training Center to when I next saw my sister, I lived in four different locations. The responsibility of finding employment, healthcare, and me housing fell to a case manager at Lakes Region Community Services Council. I asked to move in to a trailer with a former Laconia State School attendant in Meredith, Ernie. We met at the institution; he and I found ourselves friends and lovers. After I moved in the attraction vanished. He insisted on continuing intimacy, so I left. Before leaving, I contacted my case manager and requested new housing.
Christine set me up at the transitional apartments in Laconia. While living at the transitional apartment complex, I worked hard to develop independent living skills. I learned how to grocery shop, cook, budget my money, open a bank account, and shop for new clothes. The staff at the transitional housing taught me these life lessons. I also participated in the adult basic education program at the Laconia High School. Through this program, I acquired academic skills. The teachers there taught me basic math, reading and writing. I had a difficult time wrapping my brain around math problems, but I flourished in reading and writing.
I lived at a specialized-care home in Gilmanton. In this home, I dealt with strict rules. I did not last long at this location. I spent time at a group home in Center Barnstead and a foster home in Greenland before settling at the Co-op apartments in Laconia. I hated living at this apartment complex because many other tenants mistreated me. Some of them threatened to call my case manager asking her to put me back at the Laconia State School and Training Center. Some yelled and swore at me for calling the Laconia Police Department to complain about their noises. I needed to find another residence.
I remembered my reunion with my sister Jocelyn. I called Richardson’s Taxi for a ride to the bus depot in downtown Laconia and rode a bus to where Jocelyn lived. She resided at the transitional housing on 88 South State Street in Concord, New Hampshire. I stayed with her overnight. Jocelyn and I had a wonderful time with each other. To get our exercises, we walked around outside enjoying the spectacular weather, ate at McDonald’s and chatted. At the apartment, we watched television and listened to some oldies music together. The next day, I rode a taxi to the bus station in Concord and caught the bus back to Laconia. I enjoyed Concord. The city offered more activities than Laconia did.
On July 19, 1989, I moved from Laconia to Concord. Moving into my own apartment delighted me. A staff person at the transitional apartment building assisted me in packing all of my belongings. My case manager helped me move to Concord. I felt ecstatic to live alone. Although living alone, I never felt lonely. I finally attracted new friends. The community at the apartment complex treated me with respect and dignity. Sometimes we indulged in conversations. I am immensely proud of myself for my accomplishments. Life amuses me!
On January 14, 2008, I started working at the New Hampshire Bureau of Developmental Services. I regularly work Tuesdays unless my boss needs me for additional days. At my job, I photocopy materials, stuff envelopes, stick labels on file folders, distribute mail to people, shred paper, and similar tasks. I delight in the time talking to my co-workers as we eat lunch with one another, we fast developed relationships. Every two weeks I receive a paycheck. I deposit my checks in a savings account at Citizens Bank in downtown Concord. I am saving the money for a brand- new personal computer. I cherish working and earning a paycheck.