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 Pennhurst State School and Hospital history

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PostSubject: Pennhurst State School and Hospital history   Sat Nov 14, 2009 7:02 pm

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, which sits on the border between Chester County and Montgomery County in Pennsylvania, was an institution for both the mentally and physically disabled. Pennhurst opened in 1908 with high hopes of helping disabled youths throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. However, Pennhurst's seemingly good intentions came under question starting in the 1970s when rumors of physical and sexual abuse arose.

Creation and Purpose
Pennhurst was constructed and opened in 1908 as a state school for the mentally and physically disabled. Pennhurst's property was vast, covering 1,400 acres (5.7 km2). Created to house 3,500 patients at a time, Pennhurst was one of the largest institutions of its kind in Pennsylvania. Half of Pennhurst's residents were committed by court order and the other half were brought by a parent or other guardian. It was devoted strictly to the care, treatment and education of the disabled whose parents resided in Montgomery, Chester, and the surrounding counties.

Staff
Pennhurst employed a large number of staff to help assist in maintaining the facility. This staff included a board of trustees, medical staff, dental staff, and specialists in psychology, social services, accounting, and various fields of education. The grounds of Pennhurst included a 300-bed hospital, which had a full nursing staff and two surgeons on call at all times. Others at Pennhurst included members of the clergy and farming experts who grew most of Pennhurst's food. After Pennhurst was closed, many of the medical staff began work at local Phoenixville Hospital.

Property and Grounds
Pennhurst was an essentially self-sufficient community, its 1,400-acre (5.7 km2) site containing a firehouse, general store, barber shop, and even a greenhouse. The buildings of Pennhurst were named after towns in Pennsylvania such as Chester and Devon. The original buildings were designed by architect Phillip H. Johnson. Several other architectural firms were awarded contracts for future expansions and additions: J. Bedford Wooley, William H. Dechant & Sons and Horace W. Castor. All of Pennhurst's electricity was generated by an on-site power plant. A cemetery lay on the property, as well as baseball and recreational fields for the residents. Many of Pennhurst's buildings were strictly for storage; however, the majority were dormitory and hospital-style living quarters for the residents. Most of the buildings were linked by an underground tunnel system designed for transportation of handicapped patients.

Controversy and Closing
Pennhurst was often accused of dehumanization and was said to have provided no help to the mentally challenged. The institution had a long history of staff difficulties and negative public image, for example, a 1968 report by NBC called "Suffer the Little Children".

Pennhurst State School was closed in 1986 following several allegations of abuse. These allegations led to the first lawsuit of its kind in the United States, Pennhurst State School and Hospital vs. Halderman, which asserted that the mentally retarded have a constitutional right to living quarters and an education. Terry Lee Halderman had been a resident of the school, and upon release she filed suit in the district court on behalf of herself and all other residents of Pennhurst. The complaint alleged that conditions at Pennhurst were unsanitary, inhumane and dangerous, that these living conditions violated the fourteenth amendment, and that Pennhurst used cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments. After a 32-day trial and an immense investigation, prosecutors concluded that the conditions at Pennhurst were not only dangerous, with physical and mental abuse of its patients, but also inadequate for the care and habilitation for the mentally retarded. The State of Pennsylvania also concluded that the physical, mental, and intellectual skills of most patients had deteriorated while in Pennhurst.

Patient treatment at Pennhurst was also at the center of the 1982 United States Supreme Court case Youngberg v. Romeo.

Aftermath
The decision in Pennhurst State School and Hospital vs. Halderman forced the institution to close by July 1, 1986, beginning a "deinstitutionalization" process that would last several years. Its 460 patients were discharged or transferred to other facilities as appropriate; Pennhurst was responsible for discussing treatment plans with each patient's family to decide what would be the best for the patient.

There is an active preservation effort to stop the buildings from being demolished. The preservation was initiated by Nathaniel Guest. Chris Peecho, Dr. Jim Conroy and J. Gregory Pirmann additionally joined in on the efforts. The group evolved into the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance (or PMPA) which now includes a variety of people from different walks of life and has over 20 people that now make up the core group. Their website can be found at http://www.PreservePennhurst.org

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