It's been sixteen years since the state of Minnesota closed its last institution for people with developmental disabilities. At one point, the state operated nine of them, which were referred to as "state hospitals."  Former residents talk about the shameful treatment they endured as children in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s in these large facilities, treatment that included getting beaten and treated like they were less than human.

"The staff at Faribault (State Hospital in Minnesota) treated me like a dog. They thought I was stupid," said Richard Brown of Minneapolis, who was born with cerebral palsy. Brown spent 21 years at various institutions. "Many times I asked myself, "Why in the hell am I living?'"

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In 1970, Brown finally got his freedom, leaving Faribault State Hospital, which closed completely in 1998 and today is a medium security state prison, surrounded by fences and barbed wire.

"I moved out on Tuesday, August 18th in 1970. I was so happy to move out," said Brown. "I sure like being out on my own. I have more freedom over my life now and I call the shots."

In 2000, every person with developmental disabilities in Minnesota attained the same freedom, as the state closed its last institution – Fergus Falls State Hospital.

"People saw the error of our ways it's like, ‘oh my.' And we're just glad that the people forgave us (as a society) and we were able to move on. We have to make sure we remember the past and go – ‘well, we're not doing that again,'" said Dan Reed, an executive with Partnership Resources, Inc. (PRI) based in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

PRI supports people with developmental disabilities across the state. Reed said when the state closed the last institutions, even some of the clients were skeptical they could make it outside the grounds of a closed off campus.

"And I tell you once they tasted freedom and they were in charge and have more of a say, none of us have looked back," said Reed.

Most residents were moved into state-run group homes in neighborhoods, with staff on hand 24 hours a day to meet their needs.

National movement

Minnesota is one of 16 states across the country that has closed all of its institutions for the disabled. Oregon, Alaska, New Mexico and Hawaii are also part of that group. An additional seven states, including Idaho, are close to shuttering their remaining facilities.

The motivation to end segregation of the developmentally disabled has been fueled by the stance of advocacy groups, such as the ARC and the U.S. Dept. of Justice -  that unnecessary institutionalization is a form of discrimination and a violation of a person's civil rights.

"Segregation is discrimination," said Professor Charlie Lakin of the University of Minnesota, one of the country's most respected researchers on issues related to developmental disabilities. "(It's discrimination) because it deprives people of all kinds of things they deserve including effective treatment, including recognition of their civil rights, including opportunities to participate in the daily life of their communities."

In contrast, Washington state currently has no plans to downsize or close any of our four large facilities: Fircrest in Shoreline, the Rainier School in Buckley, the Yakima Valley School in Selah, and Lakeland Village in Medical Lake, outside of Spokane. Through the years many residents have moved out, with much of the downsizing due to the leadership efforts of Govs. Gary Locke and Chris Gregoire.

Gov. Jay Inslee has not shown any support for downsizing or closure of the state's institutions, known as Residential Habilitation Centers, or RHCs.

"My first reaction is sadness and it's an abomination," said Norm Munk, CEO of PRI of Minnesota. "It's morally corrupt. It's backwards. We should be putting all of our resources into getting people into the community. That's our opportunity to break down stereotypes and raise awareness."

Lessons from Minnesota

Leaders in Minnesota said it was a hard fight, both in the courts and with their legislature, to close all of the institutions, but advocacy groups kept at it for more than 25 years.

"It wasn't an easy task. It took a lot of time, it took a lot of effort, there were some meetings that weren't very fun but people worked though it and were able to proceed. (And) we did it," said Steve Larson, senior policy director of the ARC of Minnesota. "The biggest hurdle was the overall perception that people couldn't be served in the community….but once they learned and we could change that perception, then things started to snowball."

Former residents of the state hospitals worked hard over the years as well. David Donnelly, who has autism, spent 26 years in different facilities in Minnesota before getting out and moving into a group home in 1990. After that, he was laser focused to make moving out a reality for those left behind.

"All the state hospitals not good. Not good," said Donnelly. "(My own) house is very good….I decorate my room for Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas." Donnelly is supported in the community in many ways, including job opportunities, by the nonprofit Merrick, Inc., based in Vadnais Heights, Minnesota. Merrick's mission is to empower adults with disabilities.

Donnelly testified before the Minnesota state legislature and wrote to six different Minnesota governors through the years – making an appeal for the closures.

"I worked on to get everybody out of state hospitals," said Donnelly. "(The governors wrote back and said) ‘Thank you David Donnelly.' Start closing down institutions."

When that happened, Donnelly supported the building of group homes by making a donation. It was $11. "(I did my part). That's right."

One of the most important steps toward progress in Minnesota was negotiating with the unions. Just like in Washington, Minnesota's institutions were staffed with state employees. And powerful state employee unions across the country fight hard to maintain those jobs. In Minnesota, the state hammered out an agreement to create state run group homes. When institutions closed, the staff went with the clients from the facilities out into the community.

"Minnesota said as a state public policy we're going to retain a quality workforce in the community" said Greg Devereaux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees. Twenty years ago he was in the thick of the negotiations back in Minnesota.

"(Saving those jobs was key in Minnesota). No question. You would still have the same battle in Minnesota if the parties hadn't reached that kind of agreement," said Devereaux. "You don't see that sort of foresight (by state officials in Washington)."

Protecting jobs and family choice

The vocal advocacy to maintain the 2,300 state jobs at Washington's four institutions is one of the main reasons Washington still operates the facilities.

"Closing an institution is about the hardest thing a legislature ever does and it's because those institutions are really a part of the communities they reside in." said state Rep. Ruth Kagi (D-Seattle), Chair of the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee. Kagi has been a proponent of consolidation of the state institutions.

"Can you imagine the impact on Buckley if Rainier closed? It's a major part of the community," Kagi said. "The people who live there are employees of Rainier. So it's very hard and the legislators who represent those areas fight very hard to protect those institutions."

Parents and family members who have loved ones residing in the RHCs are passionate advocates to keep that choice available as well.

"We tried two different group homes and they just didn't have the team in place like they do at Rainier to control his condition," said Jeff Carter, whose brother, Steven, is a resident of the Rainier School. Carter is also the president of the Friends of Rainier, which is an advocacy group for the RHC. 

"He has a fulfilling life there. He has housemates that have long term relationships with him. Without all that team in place it had disastrous consequences (for my brother)," Carter said.

Advocates in Minnesota said in their experience, keeping institutions open was a response to fear – fear of change, and fear of potential risk to vulnerable citizens if they moved outside the walls of a segregated community.

"I think it's just fear, like anything else. People are afraid to change," said Munk.

"We have people with significant issues, including health issues (leading safe lives in the community). You have trained staff with them. You support them and you have a plan. This is not rocket science. There's some experimentation. There's some risk. But who doesn't want a little risk in their life? It's their lives," said Reed.

Advocates for the disabled in Minnesota are quick to say their state isn't perfect. The state has its own challenges, including providing enough job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. But they're proud to say that the segregation of the disabled is a thing of the past for them, and that their state is better off for it.

Richard Brown's life has changed dramatically in the years since he left Faribault State Hospital. He feels much more in control of his choices and his life.

"Living in the community gives me more access to amenities that were not available while living in the institution," said Brown. "I sure like being out on my own. I have more freedom over my life now and I call the shots."

Twelve years ago, Brown experienced another life-changing event in his life. He began to attend an art program developed by PRI. With the help of a studio art specialist, Brown has become a prolific and successful artist. He creates beautiful chalk pastel works that sell for between $1,000 and $1,700. Most of the works depict scenes of natural beauty – wonders he didn't know existed until he got out of an institution.

"People with disabilities are the same as people without disabilities. We all have the same feelings, passions and aspirations," said Brown. "All kinds of things happened in my life but I always believed in love…My life belongs to me."

For more information on Richard Brown's artwork, email PRI executive Dan Reed at

This story first aired on February 16, 2016.

Follow Susannah Frame on Twitter: @SFrameK5.