Letter from Gordon Zahn

Letter from Gordon Zahn

Excerpt from letter to Board of Visitors of the Rosewood State Training School from Gordon Zahn:


I am writing you now because much of what I have seen is deeply disturbing to me as a citizen, and because I realize how difficult it is for…even the board member to know, in detail, the conditions which exist here….I feel certain that by passing along my observations and detailed charges, you will see fit to correct the difficult situation under which inarticulate and unfortunate residents of this facility have been placed.

My first contention is that the residents of this institution have been, and still are, subject to capricious, careless, and unjust disciplinary actions. Related to this observation is that Rosewood, nominally intended to be a training school, has in fact become primarily custodial in emphasis and punitive in nature.

Custodial care may be appropriate for those whose degree of mental retardation is so severe that any efforts directed at rehabilitation or training would likely fail. But this limited form of care is tragically inadequate for the vast majority of Rosewood’s population, which is made up of those who are educable and trainable. It is in this group which you will find most of the ‘problem’ children at Rosewood. To a great extent, these are products of a childhood within which punishment was a way of life for those who kept stepping out of bounds. In return, these children kept reacting with socially unacceptable responses. For this behavior, they were then brought to Rosewood, not for punishment, but for training and correction….But once they were admitted to Rosewood, these same individuals who had been unable to adapt to the pressures of daily life at home and in the community, once again found themselves in a setting where their behaviors were being controlled by punishment of one degree or another—or threats of punishment. All too often, the punishments imposed neither fit the ‘crime’ nor the ‘criminal.’

Rosewood is and has been sadly lacking offering proper recreational programs and facilities for its residents. A weekly movie is one of the very few diversions it does provide. However, instead of being offered in response to a very real human need, admittance to this program is provided as a ‘reward’ for good behavior. The children at the institution know that for the slightest misconduct they may be, and are often, deprived of their only pleasure for an entire week.

Recently, the institution held its first dance in several years. The children looked forward to this event as one of the most important in their lives. They talked of little else for weeks in advance of the affair. When the school principal in charge of the dance received the list of boys who had asked permission to attend, she deleted a large number of names. They were boys who for one reason or another were either ‘unworthy,’ or could not be trusted. One of these was a boy who had a reputation for ‘hanging around the cafeteria talking to one of the girls.’ Two weeks prior to the dance, he had been punished for such behavior and had promised he would refrain from doing the same in the future. The employee in charge of the cafeteria reported that he had kept his promise. But in spite of the improvement in his behavior his name was dropped from the list.

It is a regrettable fact that the majority of punishments meted out to the boys are not even reported to the doctor in charge. This places the child entirely at the mercy of untrained employees who more often than not are swayed by their emotional reactions to the misconduct which they have observed. One 14-7ear-old boy, an epileptic, became involved in an argument with another boy who had been sent to bring him back to his cottage. Upon arriving there, the disturbed epileptic kicked out the pane in the door. One of the staff doctors had informed members of our CPS unit that it is typical of epileptics to be generally irritable and unstable as a result of their affliction. The untrained attendant, probably unaware of this characteristic, punished him by taking away his movie privileges for an entire month.

Another boy was found guilty of tearing three hospital gowns. For this, he was punished by the nurse with the doctor’s consent, by transferring him to the institutional prison cottage for an indefinite period. He remained there for two and a half months because both the nurse and physician had forgotten about the incident, and that the boy was still there.


--Taken from Alex Sareyan, The Turning Point: How Persons of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America’s Mentally Ill.  Scottsdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1994. p79-82.