For many who care for or work with people with special needs, "institution" is a dirty word. There are many negative connotations associated with that word. Those negative connotations include isolation, rejection, abuse, straight jackets, and sedation.
Fortunately, in the seventies, around the time that this mom of a special needs son was born, institutions became less of the norm in regards to managing the cases of those who were physically and neurologically different. Before the seventies, there seemed to be two choices: send the child away to an institution or keep the child at home like my aunt did (the best choice for her gentle son with cerebral palsy.)
Currently the emphasis is on placing the individual with special needs in the community. Various types of therapy that evolved in the late twentieth century have helped to make this possible. Speech, occupational and even physical therapy help to make individuals with special needs more independent.
Further, most of these individuals with special needs have social workers that help to insure that their needs are being met. Some people live in group homes and some live in their own apartments. Some are still kept at home.
The option of institutionalizing an individual is quickly fading away. Since the 1970s, twelve state institutions in Michigan have been shut down. Only one remains left open in my state. It happens to exist in Mt. Pleasant, the city where I live.
In the past week two articles (Part I and Part II) have appeared on the front page of Mt. Pleasant's newspaper, The Morning Sun. The articles are about the efforts by various advocacy groups to shut down the center. These advocacy groups include the Michigan Disability rights coalition, United Cerebral Palsy and Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, and the ARC of Michigan.
According to the article, the efforts to place residents in the community have resulted in the number of residents at the center being far past its peak. Less than a hundred and fifty individuals with special needs reside at the Mt. Pleasant Center. The occupants newest to the center are thirty-nine individuals who have been deemed "criminally insane" by the courts.
Not everyone wants the center to be shut down. The families of some of the individuals residing at the center are concerned what would happen to their family member if the center was to close. Most of these are moms who say that their adult son or daughter does not deal with change. Most say they cannot keep their offspring at home because of challenging behaviors and that there is no other appropriate place to send their challenged loved one.
I, too, recognize that not all individuals with special needs can live independently or even in small group homes. There are some who need constant care in a facility designed to handle severe challenging behaviors. Ideally, this facility would be a place where these individuals are seen as human beings who deserve the best possible care.
On the other hand, advocacy groups have a reason to be concerned about the way the center operates. In 2006, an article appeared in the center about a man with autism in his thirties who died of internal injuries. He was found submerged in a bath tub. It looked like an innocent drowning, but an autopsy report said otherwise. As I have not seen any follow-up stories to this case, I believe the homicide investigation remains open.
I've never been to the Mt. Pleasant Center, which is located on a campus with fifteen buildings. Some say it is run down, but others say it is a nice place to be and that the staff at the center are "wonderful, caring individuals."
If I had to guess, I would say that the center will remain open for years. The name, however, may change. So will the general status of the occupants. Individuals identified as "criminally insane" are mandated to be placed somewhere. Unfortunately, there is no clear mandate on how to care for those with severe behaviors and no way to predict what will happen to these individuals and their families.