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Documentary reveals realities of State School

Last modified: 9/23/2010 12:00:00 AM
As he accompanied filmmaker Bil Rogers and historian Gordon DuBois through the now empty, dilapidated, and often haunting buildings remaining at the former Laconia State School, former resident Rheal LaForest tried to convey the harsh, undignified atmosphere in the Felker Building where he spent decades of his life.

"This was a big, open ward, no curtains, and the beds were lined up here, and here, and here," said LaForest as he was being filmed, his body language and tone clearly taking him back, for just a moment, to a life that largely consisted of a small cot in a room overly and endlessly filled with small cots.

The film goes on to elaborate on more of those realities faced every day by former residents of the Laconia State School, the state facility that once was home to New Hampshire's most disenfranchised, developmentally disabled citizens. It was a world where residents were afforded no expectation of privacy, even in the most personal acts: Four toilets, all cracked and broken, served a population of 200 or more; there were no toilet stalls or in some cases, even toilet seats, and bathtubs, un-curtained, often shared space with toilets.

But it is also a world that New Hampshire led the country to change. The forces of law, social justice, and societal values came together and decided that warehousing those once deemed "feeble-minded" was unjust and illegal.

The film Lost in Laconia, debuting this weekend at Red River Theatres in Concord, tells the story of the

Laconia State School, from its beginnings, in 1903, to 1991, when the last resident was placed and the doors were locked for good.

It would have been easy for filmmaker Rogers to make this a simplistic movie about bad versus good, white hats versus black hats, people with evil intent versus people with good intent. But the story isn't so simple, and Rogers, working closely with historian and former State School recreational therapist Gordon DuBois, conveys the complexities without making the film overly complicated or preachy.

"Sure, we could have gone way darker, because there were horrors there, and this could have been a movie about how the state sucks for having operated such a place," Rogers said. "But what happened has so much to do with how society viewed its responsibilities over time, and how that changed."

DuBois said that as the State School was in the process of closing down, superintendent Richard Crocker had the foresight to recognize the importance of documenting the school's history - the good and the bad - before the doors closed for good. The state's Records and Archives Division helped to catalogue and organize documents from the school's history. And DuBois incorporated much of that history in a presentation he began to offer to different organizations throughout the state and beyond, often in his capacity as faculty at the University of New Hampshire's Institute on Disability.

In the 1990s, a grant from the New Hampshire Humanities Council allowed him to begin to collect oral histories from those involved with the institution. The film grew out of DuBois's ongoing passion.

"The history of LSS is a huge part of the history of New Hampshire and I began to worry about what happens when I'm 150 and I'm not doing the lecture anymore," DuBois said.

The film was funded primarily by the Community Support Network (CSNI) and the state's 10 area agencies that serve the developmentally disabled population. Other funding came from the state, and smaller but vital contributions from the VFW, Knights of Columbus, and donations from former residents and workers.

While Rogers and DuBois hope that the film serves an important purpose by telling the story of the State School, the project has already proven vital in giving voice to those who lived and worked there.

"We said to people 'Tell us what this was like for you,' and for many, it was the first time anyone has asked that, had asked for the stories," DuBois said.

 Alms houses

The film explains how, until the late 1800s and beyond, New Hampshire and most other states ran alms houses - places where the poor and others deemed as unfit for regular society were dumped; narrator Rogers explains that at the time, American society tended to equate poverty with flaws in character.

On screen, a doctor explains that the message of the alms house was "to provide refuge for the poor, but not make it nice enough to encourage laziness."

Around the turn of the 19th century, alms houses became repositories for all manner of society's "undesirables." In 1901, the New Hampshire Federation of Women's Clubs asked the legislature to fund a home that would move the "feeble-minded" children from the company of the "degenerate class" found in the alms houses. By 1903, the New Hampshire School for the Feeble-Minded opened on 250 acres in Laconia formerly known as the Crockett Family Farm, with 60 residents.

While the school was founded as an act of protection for the state's most vulnerable children, the facility offered little more than warehousing for much of its existence; in the beginning, residents were called inmates. And that vulnerable population found itself growing and subjected to all manner of degradation and inhumane treatment: In one of perhaps the state's most shameful moments, it passed a law in 1917 authorizing the sterilization of the "feeble-minded." By the time the practice stopped in the late 1950s, over 400 residents - three women to every man - had been forcibly sterilized.

 Another story

But as the film details the harsh conditions, it tells another story too: The story of state school employees and their passion for the work. While there were, of course, flawed people who had no business providing direct care to such a challenging population, many employees found a vocation in the work. Employees were caught in the middle - trying to provide decent care in a grueling environment and in a system that was, itself, inherently wrong.

As reforms came to the institution, media coverage tended to lump employees in with a state system that was desperately in need of fixing.

One former director of residential care says in the film, "98 percent of the staff were wonderful people, torn apart to go home and read in the paper and find out how bad they were all day long."

But as the landmark court case Garrity v. Gallen was being decided, staff members themselves were not convinced that society was going to warmly welcome state school residents.

"Even among the professional staff there was hesitance - schools are not equipped, the Average Joe on the street is not going to treat these people well," recalls former program coordinator Frank Sgambati. "It wasn't like 'Isn't this a wonderful thing.' "

But as the state was compelled to develop placements and community supports to afford residents the chance at meaningful lives outside the institution - ultimately leading the nation in mainstreaming and in de-institutionalization - many employees warmed to the new possibilities.

"We were doing something that doesn't come along very often . . . redesigning services, thinking maybe we can do this without the institution - that was exciting," said Harry Woodley, former pastoral counselor at the school. "These things don't come along very often in a career, or in life."

Ultimately, though, the film conveys its powerful message of hope through those former residents.

As Lost in Laconia ends, we visit again with Rheal LaForest, who talks simply and powerfully about his life.

"I go to ballgames, I get out and watch construction, see what's going up or down," LaForest said. "I'm free. I've been free for 20 years now. I can come and go. I don't have to be locked up behind the key anymore."

(Lost In Laconia begins Sunday with a special, invitation-only showing, and then runs on various days through Oct. 3 at Red River Theatres. Call 224-4600 or check redrivertheatres.org for information.)


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