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New Charges of Abuse and Neglect

Newspaper clipping from the Lewiston Evening Journal, January 10, 1951 – Headline: Pownal Incidents ‘Exceptions’ – Payne

Lewiston Evening Journal, January 10, 1951

In the late 1940’s the Maine Federation of Women’s Clubs asked Maine Governor Payne to appoint a committee to look into conditions at Pownal State School, after their 1946 investigation found crowding and bad conditions. A Visiting Committee in 1951 cited cruel and abusive treatment, including excessive use of straightjackets, euphemistically known as “camisoles,” and physical punishments.  They saw no evidence of rehabilitative work, but noted the facilities were clean. The superintendent challenged the findings, saying the committee was looking for negatives.

Newspaper clipping from the Lewiston Evening Journal, January 10, 1951 – Headline: Pownal Incidents ‘Exceptions’ – Payne
Lewiston Evening Journal, January 10, 1951
Newspaper clipping from the Lewiston Daily Sun, January 16, 1951 – Headline: Maine Institutional Care.
Lewiston Daily Sun, January 16, 1951
Newspaper clipping from the Lewiston Daily Sun, January 23, 1951 – Headline: Says Two Members of Probe Group Never Visited Pownal
Lewiston Daily Sun, January 23, 1951

By the next year, Commissioner of Institutional Services Norman Greenlaw was attributing problems to “overcrowding” and pleading for more money, saying, “What goes on behind the closed doors of many of your institutions is to you, the average citizen, purely imaginative and fantastic, yet the standards of treatment have been determined by you…The money appropriated determines the quality of treatment.” (Lewiston Evening Journal, January 29, 1952)

The Legislature in 1953 “held the department of institutions to a tight budget” (Lewiston Daily Sun, 1/27/1954), not acquiescing to the Commissioner’s demands. They denied a request for a $5 million expansion of buildings. Commissioner Greenlaw continued to warn of wearing out infrastructure and a lack of qualified staff. That same year, a new superintendent would be given control of Pownal State School – Dr. Peter Bowman.

The next October, Superintendent Peter Bowman reported that some patients had been “scalded, beaten, and sexually abused in the recent past.” He fired some employees and the education director was suspended for sexually abusing clients. But, Bowman stressed, most employees were caring and tried to do the best for residents – but were hampered by inadequate facilities, and staff shortages. Bowman said, “I have been powerless to take complete corrective action because I need more help and better facilities.” (Lewiston Evening Journal, 10/15/1954)

Bowman also admitted that some of the abuses were due to patients being forced to care for other patients, due to staff shortages.

Newspaper clipping from the Lewiston Daily Sun, January 26, 1955 – Headline: 100 Patients Kept At Pownal Because Of Ability To Work – Work Should Be Done by Attendants, Dr. Bowman Tells Legislative Com. – Attorney E. Berman Calls School “Concentration Camp” – Bowman Sees Further Staff Cut Unless Fund Boosted
Lewiston Daily Sun, January 26, 1955

The Legislative Research Committee released its report in 1955:

Text of 1955 Maine Legislative Report on Institutions
1955 Maine Legislative Report on Institutions

The Committee’s recommendations for Pownal included a maximum security building for “criminal psychopaths”, additional living quarters for staff, a separate tuberculosis building, a school gymnasium, and added social workers and a speech therapist. The report also acknowledged, but didn’t look more closely at, the larger problem of institutionalization itself:

Text of 1955 Maine Legislative Report on Institutions
1955 Maine Legislative Report on Institutions
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Theme Alert!


Values Check

Who and what do we value in our society? How do we determine someone’s “worth”, and whether they are deserving of help when they need it? Are all people really equal – and do we treat everyone as equally human?

People with developmental disabilities were sent to institutions because they were seen as useless or even dangerous to society. Their value in a place like Pineland rested on their potential for being trained to do menial labor – a Pineland resident could potentially get a furlough or even release from the institution if they could show that they could work.

In general, people with developmental disabilities throughout our history have been dismissed, patronized, and dehumanized. Doctors assumed that people with developmental disabilities didn’t feel pain, caretakers believed that they did not need friendships or hobbies or someone to communicate with, and society saw them as dangerous and unfit.

There were also people and moments in history that shifted our assumptions about the value of people with developmental disabilities – President Kennedy’s experience of loving his sister with disabilities led to huge policy shifts that impacted people with developmental disabilities across our country, and the brave self-advocates who organized a civil rights movement led directly to another president signing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The question must be posed, what is the value of all potential members of the community, with or without disability, to the very health and fiber of the community?

Workforce Crisis

Workforce Crisis

The bulk of the labor that supports people with developmental disabilities has historically been done by “low wage” earners – high school graduates or those with associate degrees working for minimum wage or very close to it. In addition to “low wages”, society at large can view the job as low skilled and akin to “babysitting.”  In addition to a lack of workers to fill the shifts and perform the vital tasks, those that are employed in this field often feel undervalued and overworked. Expectations are low – and services suffer as a result. People with developmental disabilities often don’t get the supports they need from the staff hired to serve them – and the behaviors and reactions that may occur with this lack of support can then lead to abuse and neglect, including an overdependence on traumatic interventions like restraint.

Good direct care providers are also promoted to “supervisor” roles without the training and skills needed to support direct care workers (as the skillset of the two jobs are not the same.)  Of course, this assumption of the skills is simply untrue.  The lack of value placed on those doing this essential work has led to labor shortages again and again.