Documentaries are video essays made to capture an event, or talk about miscellaneous subjects. This can be about historical events, the making of an impactful movie or a relevant issue that either is or has not been touched on and swept under the rug in mainstream media. However, if documentaries are capable of getting enough exposure, then they can bring relevant issues into the light of the general public despite not knowing about the subject before. A shining example of a documentary bringing light to a relevant issue that was swept under the rug prior to its release was Suffer Little Children by Bill Baldini and its take on the Pennhurst Institution and its multiple case studies of assault from staff.
This documentary series is a five-episode series talks about the asylum, Pennhurst State School. An institution that was initially meant to rehabilitate the mentally-ill or mentally -handicapped into society, but is now infamous for its multiple human rights violations with the patients and their under-trained and understaffed faculty. Thanks to these episodes, it brought the terrible and heartbreaking methods on their management under a microscope. It highlighted the horrific moments in the film by putting emphasis on the children being placed in cribs, who began to develop deformations, and the lack of staff of the institution to give the patients the basic necessities in order to contribute to society.
Before these documentaries were made, people that didn’t have relatives there would not think much about the topic of the mentally ill or mentally handicapped patients in the institution. With the topic of mental illness was more taboo at that era to mention in a conversation compared to today where there are things such as charities to help raise awareness on the topic. Dismissing the mentally ill as “lunatics” back in the day. If anyone in the family actually suffered from any mental illnesses or handicaps, then they were to send them to an insane asylum where the staff would try to rehabilitate them back into society and have the family move on with their lives while this process would be happening. However, what those people did not know is that there were multiple institutions that contributed to poor management skills within the institutions such as Letchworth and Willowbrook which lead to poor treatment towards the patients that would achieve almost no progress, or to a greater extend, end up regressing the patients to the mentality of an infant despite some patients being around their 60s (New York Times, 1983), and the subject of Pennhurst was no exception. An example of some of these “treatments” is putting restraints on the patients, some examples of physical restraints were binding limbs or giving them muffs while putting them in their adult-sized cribs. Not only were there physical restraints, but gases were used on the patients in order to sedate them by means of acting as a chemical restraint. These restraints were an example of the neglect performed at the institute. The end result of treatments were just as terrible as the “treatments” themselves, causing many patients to suffer physical deterioration and intellectual and behavioral regressions. A patient that can be used as an example of these inhumane treatments from the staff in Pennhurst was Terry Lee Halderman.
“At the age of twelve, she was sent to the asylum, and could only say ‘dadda’, ‘momma’, ‘noynoy’ (no), ‘baba’ (goodbye), ‘nana’ (grandmother). [Eleven years after her admittance, she became non-verbal with several fractured body parts, multiple cuts, scratches and bites].” (Preserve Pennhurst, Sec. Halderman vs. Pennhurst State School, pt. 11).
In fact, a former employee there, Gregg Hershberger said that assaults on the patients were common with them having severe mental disabilities (Gregg Hershberger, 2017). What made the situation more heartbreaking to know about that fact, since the patients from the institution are pretty much defenseless because of their respected handicaps as well as about 90 percent of the patient population within Pennhurst have an IQ below 35 (New York Times, 1983). Unfortunately, the situation was made even worse was that people have tried to sue the Pennsylvania state for not intervening with Pennhurst’s treatment of the mentally challenged and ill, but unfortunately, interfered with the Eleventh amendment of the American Constitution (David L. Shapiro, 1984). Stating that any individual was incapable of suing a single state (guest75802, 2008).
When the documentaries came out, major parts of the footage presented were shown to represent the importance of the issue presented was showing patients in their cribs anorexic, in restraints and pulling on the matrices of their cribs. One of the interviews was with a child who was dropped off to the asylum and was named “Johnny”. He has no memories outside of Pennhurst, and according to the faculty, his parents worked for gangs, and dropped him off in the institution because they couldn’t take care of him. He had no schooling or any kind of handicap with an estimated IQ of 69. During his stay, he became increasingly mute, and that during the interview, he could only say one word responses. The documentary continues with saying that the mentally challenged at the time, were pushed out of the public eye, and because of it, they were left to the “care” of the staff. Proving this point, one of the interviewees was a patient saying he never got a visitor since 1940. Even the journalist himself, Baldini admitted that the first noticeable thing when he walked into the institution was the sounds that came from the establishment. He described them as not only to be moans and groans that translated as cries for help to him, but sounds of pain and neglect from being left out, yearning to be freed of the tortures in their current residence. In an interview from NBC, “Exposing Pennhurst”, he stated “The two things at Pennhurst that you notice right away was: the sound and the smell. [The sound of moaning echoed through the buildings as if they were cries for help.]” (01:01:30:08-01:02:44:03).
After the documentaries were released, the attitude towards the institution shifted. People started to open their eyes on how the mentally challenged were treated by the Pennhurst staff. In fact, many of the staff members felt so guilty for the treatments and were sick of having to go through with it while keeping the regrets being made bottled up, so they ended up confessing on the documentary according to Baldini in the same interview, he stated that:
“The attendants and some of the administrators were just ecstatic. Like god I’ve been trying to get somebody to listen to me all these years and no one was listening and I- you know gave them a vehicle so they could be heard. And I had to protect them because I didn’t want them to get fired, but they helped me enormously. They were really great – I couldn’t have done it without them.”
– Bill Baldini (01:03:22:00-01:04:41:11)
Showing that the employees working there, such as the nurses to doctors have immense guilt with being associated with the facility, and just wanted to confess all the horrible stuff that they did while working in Pennhurst. The shutdown of the facility at this point, was inevitable now that the five episodes of the series have been released to the public. Many people started to look at the institution in disdain thanks to Baldini’s work. However, there was a concern of where the patients will be housed when it closes (Halderman v. Pennhurst State School,1985). After all, even though there will be patients that have families that they can go to when the institution shuts down, there will be patients that are basically abandoned, and have nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, this change was not sudden, as Pennhurst would be running until the late 1980s, however, things went for a turn with Temple University’s Disability development research developer, James Conroy insisted on building community homes for these patients where they experienced actual rehabilitation progress than when they were in Pennhurst in 1984 (Analysis of the Settlement, 1985). Eventually, it was closed permanently in the year 1987 (Jamie Tarabay, 2010), later reopening as a tourist attraction many years later.
In conclusion, “Suffer the Little Children” by Bill Baldini has successfully managed to bring the human rights violations into light with the documentaries released. Having the opportunity to explore how the management of the asylum works, and interviewing patients about their experiences opened the eyes of the general public on the asylum and how it treated their patients. Due to the exposure of the abuse patients had to go through with the staff, lead to the permanent closing of Pennhurst, which was of course, unavoidable with the poor management skills and numerous assault cases coming from the staff which contributed to the violation of multiple human rights.
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