History of Youth Institutionalization (research + beyond)

I had a few people express interest in my work, if people think this is too self-centered, just move on and let the thread die. I’m putting it here because I don’t want to hijack any other thread.

As I said in the “Is it just me or…” thread, my dissertation is broadly on the history of youth institutionalization in Michigan. My current chapters explore:

  1. The opening of the first Michigan school for poor children (called the State Public School at Coldwater) in the mid 19th century. This was the first of its kind in the nation as the only qualification for being admitted was poverty. "delinquent" and "abnormal" children were not admitted. The state decided that a family was inadequately equipped to raise a child - either because of just poverty or a combination of social factors that were considered "corrupting" of a child. Children were either adopted out or, more commonly, "paroled" to a family to work as a farm hand, maid, or other low-wage help.
  2. The shift from Coldwater only accepting "mentally sound" children and expanding to include "feebleminded" children. Feebleminded is a term that broadly means mentally subpar in some way. It can be either in (perceived) low intelligence or because of moral or criminal transgressions. These children were taken from - again - "problematic" families and trained to become low-wage workers for local families. These children were not adopted out, only farmed out for their labor.
  3. The next shift was from "feebleminded" to more of what we consider petty juvenile delinquents today. I should add that these are all very messy categories and should not be seen as changing who is being targeted. The language is the primary thing that's changing. This is also the time that another facility opened up to house delinquent children from Detroit and surrounding places. During this time period, from the 20s through the 70s, children were "rehabilitated" until they could earn income for the facility and then they were paroled out. The horrifying twist here is that many of these teenagers were sterilized before release. The fear was that their children would be wards of the state as well, thus creating an economic and social burden on the general public. (If you've been following the news today, you'll see that a whistleblower report came out alleging mass hysterectomies in ICE facilities. This is not surprising. It is a practice that never ended.)
  4. The afterlives of institutions. This is during/after the deinstitutionalization movement - which for many was not actually a deinstitutionalization but rather a shift towards incarceration in penal institutions rather than merely institutionalization. As should not be a surprise to anyone, this shift from training to punishment coincided with the rise of children of color being institutionalized as compared to their white counterparts.

Once abandoned, the institutions were left to become objects of ghost tales. Or in the case of the Detroit area facility, it became a literal haunted house to generate revenue for the county. I explore the phenomenon of our cultural obsession with these “haunted” sites and what it says about how we view disability, institutionalization, etc. We like these places in part because we think of them as a relic of time long gone - when in actuality tens of thousands of young people are incarcerated on any given day. These children are locked away and forgotten while people pay to be entertained by the atrocities of supposedly historical events.


I don’t intend on going into a tenure-track career but rather plan on working with young people in some capacity. I have no idea what that looks like right now but I am gearing my dissertation to be accessible to non-academics as I want it to be read by individuals who work in the juvenile justice system.

^^ important, very useful research, with huge potential for positive and practical real life impact.

Thanks for sharing & good luck writing.

Interesting. My S1 works with adolescents who have been referred to him by the juvenile justice system. He evaluates them so the court understands the appropriate next step for them. He’s a Psy.D. psychologist.

Fascinating! I’m especially interested in the “afterlife” section due to my own research interests. Do you reference Erving Goffman’s “Stigma” at all?

We volunteer in our local youth detention facility. We’ve been told that this facility has more volunteer hours per month than any other similar facility in the country. The kids can take college classes, participate in a culinary arts program, get individual tutoring, take music lessons, etc. They also have a mentoring program - my husband has mentored a couple of young men. A group of us went in once a month to throw a party for all the kids who celebrate a birthday during the month. Once COVID restrictions are lifted, we’ll go in again.

There is now a transitional house available for kids who want a safe place to live. They plan to have a cafe running at some point to provide employment for the kids.

So it’s not true that all kids in detention are warehoused and forgotten about. Of course, the objective is to get rid of these facilities altogether, but right now Maine has no place to send them. :frowning:

@stradmom I have not (this is the least developed part of my dissertation right now) but I cite a lot of people who build on his work. I will eventually get the original incorporated in there. You might be interested in Rosemarie Garland-Thompson’s Extraordinary Bodies or Sue Schweik’s The Ugly Laws. Same basic cultural phenomenon from two very different angles.

@MaineLonghorn of course, not all are forgotten. It was a broad statement that refers to the cultural phenomenon of out of sight, out of mind with incarcerated youth. That is absolutely amazing that you guys volunteer there. My best friend used to work at a juvenile detention facility here in metro Detroit (while he supposedly worked in the “treatment” side of the facility, the reality was that there was no difference in how inmates were treated) and they never have volunteers. They’re open to them, but I just checked with him and he knew of one volunteer who came a few times - to give music lessons - but then stopped.

@veryhappy that’s amazing - it cannot be easy work. My cousin is coincidentally a PsyD who did her dissertation on incarcerated youth in a major metropolitan area. We’re not close so we had no idea that we were working on very similar dissertations. I know her goal was to work with youth in the facilities but I’m not sure if that happened or where she’s working now.

@alh thank you. I’m a historian but I could never quite leave the realm of the present. My original proposal only went up through the early 60s but I happen to live right next to the Detroit-area facility and could not shake the feeling that I needed to go up through the present.

As a side note - while this is not (yet?) part of my research, it’s worth noting that with the COVID outbreak, our governor ordered the release of non-violent youth (and some other categories) from detention facilities. I am fascinated to know what the outcomes are from that ordered release. Did the young people “re-offend”? What was their school attendance like? And so on. It might not be quite quantifiable yet but if the outcomes were good, it could make a very strong case that youth offenders shouldn’t be confined (unless a threat to themselves or others).

I had a fellowship about two summers ago where we worked on creating a “healing-centered restorative engagement” program with Detroit area youth who were disconnected from school and employment. I should reach out to them with this idea…

@stradmom just saw your comment on the other thread. I have played with adding an oral history component to my last chapter.

Living in the community where one of these institutions used to stand (and my father and grandmother lived in the same community from the 60s onward when the place was still open) has given me a really interesting perspective. I did a whole conference talk inspired by an informal conversation between my grandmothers’ friends and myself about the institution. It’s actually the only talk text I’ve been able to successfully get up on my website lol.

Also writing and having a baby in the middle of a pandemic has been a blessing and a curse. Mr R is a mostly SAHD so he takes on the bulk of the babying but when he does work, I have no help. On the flip side, I’m able to attend a lot of seminars and other talks and trainings that I’ve wanted to do but couldn’t with the baby. Now that they’ve moved to Zoom, I can do them from home! (People have gotten so used to seeing him that sometimes when I don’t have him on my lap, my meetings begin with “Where’s the baby? We want to see the baby!”)

While my D is only in her first semester of college, she hopes to attend law school and is very interested in social justice topics. She is also interested in special education law, and I’m sure she will find your research as fascinating as I do. Thanks again for sharing with us.

@girlmom01 One of my field exams was Disability Studies/Justice. I’d be more than happy to send along the reading list if it’s a field she wants to dive into.

Most (though certainly not all!!!) laws and school policies are written by non-disabled people and often by someone who has never moved much past the medical model of disability. Disability theory moves a disability from the body (medical model) to the outside world. For example, being a wheelchair user isn’t a disability. The fact that we can’t get into a lot of buildings due to lack of ramps is the disability.

Most people don’t think of low vision as a disability because it can usually be corrected by contacts or glasses. It “becomes” a disability when it goes beyond what a lens can correct.

Interesting topic. Regarding deinstitutionalization, I would say many ended up on the street and/or in shelters (as well as in the penal system, as you wrote).

Also, I wonder if you will cover young people committed to psychiatric hospitals, including private ones, in the days before medication. Insurance covered relatively long stays ( a year or more) going back to the 1960’s and '70’s for instance. when psychoanalysis was still regarded as the main treatment.

Once medication overtook talk therapy as treatment, insurance coverage changed and a teen might get a month in a hospital for a special program, but generally stays are less than a week. So where do they go and what happens to them now?

After working in a large shelter for many years, I am pretty conflicted about personal liberty versus protection of health and safety. It’s so hard to get people help.

Of course deinstitutionalization proponents used civil liberty arguments but the reality is, closing institutions down saved a ton of money. The promised community care never materialized.

In studying the various forms of institutionalization of youths, I am curious how you feel about the current state of affairs versus the “old days” of orphanages (is a DCF foster home better?) and detention centers.

Should civil liberties be the priority, or safety? Essentially unanswerable.

One question: when the kids were farmed out to work, did the money go in their pockets or the pockets of the home? I imagine the latter. Did the homes make a profit or did these earnings pay for the shelter and food of the working kid?

@romanigypsyeyes I would love to have your reading list to share with D. She has worked with kids throughout high school and would make a great special ed teacher, but law school is calling to her. Working in special ed/disability law would be the best of both worlds as far as I’m concerned.

@compmom yes you’re right about where these kids ended up. When the Detroit area place closed in the 70s, officials promised that the children would go to foster or halfway houses. Of course, the majority did not and many ended up being housed in the facility for a few years after it closed. This history is a bit murky to me right now because it disappears from the state records when it officially closed down. I was supposed to spend the summer in the county and city archives but, well, COVID lol.


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Also, I wonder if you will cover young people committed to psychiatric hospitals, including private ones, in the days before medication.

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This one gets very tricky because mental health records in Michigan are considered confidential forever. It took me over two years of constant back and forth fighting with the state to get access to the sterilization records that I’m currently data scraping because they fell under mental health. My original dissertation was more focused on women in mental health hospitals but had to reroute because of the constant hurdles.

I am looking at financials though. One of Coldwater’s proudest facts was that they cost the state less money per capita than comparable institutions in other states. The children’s upkeep was provided by the county - as these were essentially poor houses for children which were considered the responsibility of the county - and if the county didn’t pay, the children could and would be returned.

Regarding the payment when they were working on parole - the hospital was paid a portion and then the child was also supposed to get a portion. These were paid by either the family, the county, or the state depending on the time period and the economic condition of the “foster” families. However, the families they were working with often stole these wages if they came from external sources or refused to give them to the children. Children were not supposed to have to pay for room and board as these families were supposed to treat the children like they were part of the family - as the stated purpose of the institution was to re-home children with “acceptable” families. However, more often than not they were treated as no higher than indentured servants.

The current and historical youth mental health system in the state is an absolute atrocity. Mentally ill young people, those who were severely mentally impaired, and those with significant physical disabilities never made it into these training schools. They only took the young people considered “trainable.” The rest were sent to either Lapeer (a longterm feebleminded home) or one of the many mental health hospitals where they were treated no differently than the adults.

Now, there is precisely ONE inpatient psychiatric hospital for young people in Michigan. It’s supposed to hold almost 120 patients but is funded by the state to house less than half of that. I honestly don’t know how state funding works with Medicaid/Medicare - which I assume most of these children are on. (Hard for many to hold down a good, full-time job with a severely mentally ill child.)

I, too, struggle with the balance between civil liberties and how to help people who might not be able to help themselves (yet). We know that mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of crimes, end up homeless, or worse and I do think we have a responsibility to communally care for these people, especially young people. I’ve struggled with mental illness most of my life but, fortunately, it’s never been severe enough to require inpatient stays. If I didn’t have constant access to my meds though, I’m not entirely sure what my life would look like.

As kind of a side note, one of the things I emphasize in my work (even if it doesn’t always come out in my descriptions) is that many people had nothing but great things to say about their times in the two facilities. Many adults who were there as kids talk about the fact that it was the first time in their lives that they didn’t go hungry, where they went to school consistently for the first time, and where they made lifelong friends. Of course, not all (or maybe even most) had such positive experiences but I don’t think they should be erased either. Today, there is nothing like this for young people (except prisons and some shelters - neither of which are appropriate places for most young people) and I firmly believe there should be. I have no idea what that might look like though.

I question the DCF/CPS foster care system as being a better alternative. Have you watched Crip Camp? I have no illusions about what sometimes went on in institutions (read Frances Farmer’s book) but a benign orphanage type facility looks good again to me in some ways.

I remember my mother volunteered in the ealry '60’s in our local state psychiatric hospital. The women were naked, and often in cages. Titticut Follies for Women! At the shelter I worked in, the men would “winter” at Bridgewater State Hospital. I also used to talk with prisoners at a medium security prison, young men mostly, and they told me they would commit a small crime so they could also spend the winter there.

Anyway- your work sounds great and I would love to read it. For some reason I have always been drawn to people on the margins.

ps I have a teen who spent a month in a psych. hospital program for adolescents. It was wonderful and set her on a path…After 19 no such program, just the usual 5-7 days to start or adjust meds and you are out.

@compmom right now there is no good alternative. There needs to be, but it doesn’t exist. At least not in Michigan. Even if we had a great foster system (we don’t - not that there aren’t great foster parents), people rarely want children with mental illnesses. It’s a mess.

I’m glad your child’s experience was good. The inpatient place we have here in MI - which is actually only a few miles from me so I know quite a few people who worked there - is grossly underfunded and just kind of a disaster. I know some social workers who did their field placement there and wonder how it’s still open.

There’s a documentary on Amazon called Pennhurst that might interest you (it’s from 2018 or 2019 I believe). I’ve watched several expose documentaries from the 60s/70s, and read even more from the first half of the 20th century, about mental health facilities and they’re just as horrific as you describe.

I was obviously born after the deinstitutionalization movement but my dad was a building manager for a former psych hospital in the 80s and 90s as it was being decommissioned entirely. My sister and I used to run around the abandoned buildings that are now part of a “haunted asylum” ghost tour ?. It was in conversations with my dad that my dissertation really began to form, even though I’ve moved away from more traditional mental health hospitals. I would like to come back to them one day and write a book about them. Maybe for my second book lol.