Home > Uncategorized > A gritty new book on a survivor of Belchertown State School

A gritty new book on a survivor of Belchertown State School

Donald Vitkus spent his childhood years in the 1950’s at the Belchertown State School, one of the large institutions for people with developmental disabilities that used to be common in Massachusetts, but have now largely been shut down.

“You’ll Like it Here,” which is scheduled for publication on November 1 by Leveller’s Press of Amherst, MA, is the ironically titled story of Vitkus’s life, as told to Ed Orzechowski, a COFAR Board member and president of the Advocacy Network, an affiliated organization. A book signing is scheduled for Sunday, November 13, at 4 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center, 90 Park Street, in Florence, MA.

I had a chance to read an advance copy of the book.  It is an emotionally gripping account of the resiliency of the human spirit. The result of more than 40 hours of interviews, it is Vitkus’s recollection of growing up at Belchertown, how that experience shaped the rest of his life, and his “passionate desire that we never return to those days.”

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In 2005, Orzechowski was assisting at a book signing at Holyoke Community College for “Crimes Against Humanity,” a detailed account by Benjamin Ricci of conditions at Belchertown and the other institutions prior to the 1970’s. Ricci had been instrumental in bringing about a class action lawsuit in that decade that resulted in major improvements  in the care and conditions in the facilities.

Following that 2005 book signing, Orzechowski says, a member of the audience approached him.  It was Vitkus, then a 62-year-old student at HCC. Vitkus had actually been responsible for arranging Ricci’s talk.

Vitkus told Orzechowski he had grown up at Belchertown, and was looking for someone to help him write his life story. That conversation evolved into Orzechowski’s book.  Vitkus is now an advocate for people with developmental disabilities and is vice president of the Advocacy Network.

Vitkus was sent by a foster family to Belchertown in 1943, when he was six years old.  He had a tested IQ of 41 and was labled “a moron” in the state school records. But as you read this account, you realize just how faulty IQ tests can be.  In fact, Vitkus and many of his fellow “inmates” at Belchertown had to use their wits to survive there.

You may marvel, for instance, at the ingenuity Vitkus and a handful of other boys used in a number of instances to light cigarette butts they had found, using only an empty overhead light socket in a boys bathroom and a strand of steel wool.  Matches were forbidden.

As I read this story, I got the impression that there are actually two main characters in it. The primary character, of course, is Vitkus.  But I found myself viewing Belchertown as a character as well — it’s a brooding presence throughout the book.  Belchertown is the evil institution incarnate.  It is Vitkus’s triumph that he was able to survive Belchertown and get on with his life, and ultimately to help others in the largely privatized group-home system that has replaced the large institutions.

This is a gritty book, and a disturbing one. It is not for the faint of heart. Some of the incidents are mind-numbingly horrifying.

What Vitkus and so many others went through at Belchertown in the 1950’s was the result of an attitude at that time that people with intellectual disabilities were not only sub-human, but that horrendous things could be done to them without fear of retribution.  The residents were abused and treated as prison inmates by many of the staff. The place was overcrowded and unsanitary.

Beyond the abuse, there was an attitude at Belchertown at the time that few of the people living there had any potential to live outside of the institution, or any need to be treated with basic human dignity. For instance, the residents were not even allowed to receive Communion in Catholic services that they attended at Belchertown.

The only person who would receive Communion was the residing priest, Vitkus told Orzechowski, “who would give it to himself while we all watched. We were never allowed to receive, I guess because we never had confession. I think they figured us morons wouldn’t know when we were sinning, anyway.”

And yet, there were exceptions to the prevailing conditions and attitudes at Belchertown:  The actual school on the grounds was a haven for Vitkus.  Unlike most ward attendants, the teachers in the school were encouraging, he notes.

There were little satisfactions, such as the sudden appearance in Vitkus’s ward of a television set, which had been bought by members of the Belchertown Friends Association, a group formed by parents of patients. “Without them, we wouldn’t have known what television was. I wouldn’t have gotten to see the only World Series the Dodgers ever won in Brooklyn.”

TV also showed Vitkus news coverage about the civil rights struggles of the late 1950’s.  These images raised troubling questions for him. “Why were colored people treated like that?” he wondered.  “Why was anyone treated like that? Why did places like Little Rock, Montgomery, and Belchertown exist? Where was justice?”

There were occasional outings from Belchertown as well — to the Belchertown Fair and to Camp Chesterfield, a boy scout camp.

But Vitkus’s experiences at Belchertown were mostly hellish.  At one point, he began refusing to take mind-numbing Thorazine and bit off the finger of an attendant who was trying to jam the pills down his throat.  He spent 34 days in solitary confinement as a result.  “Lithium and Thorazine were chemical restraints used to supplement leather straps,” he states.

In 1960, Vitkus was “paroled” from Belchertown at the age of 17, after graduating from the sixth grade at the school. His IQ now tested at 80, and he was sent to a program run by the Catholic Church called Brightside. Conditions there were remarkably better than Belchertown had been. There was no one there to force meds down his throat, Vitkus notes.

But Vitkus was clearly smarter than his stated IQ. After he did leave Belchertown and was living on his own, he bought a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica from a salesman and proceeded to read it. But he was dogged by the state having classified him “as a moron.” His draft card read 4-F, which meant he was unsuitable for the military.

That 4-F classification was so offensive to him that he resolved to change it; so he went to the local draft board office and got it changed to 1-A.  He was eventually shipped off to Vietnam where he first served as a cook for the Army, then engaged in combat and lost his buddy who was killed in a firefight.  Combined with the experience of Belchertown, Vietnam resulted in continuing guilt feelings and posttraumatic stress disorder for him.

After his return from Vietnam, Vitkus got married to a young woman whom he’d met while he was a resident at Brightside.  They had two children, a boy and a girl.  He also took night classes at a local high school and received a high school diploma.

Yet the wounds inflicted by Belchertown were always still there, even in his marriage. He was incapable of affection with his wife and could not relate in basic ways to his kids, and they all resented it.  Eventually, his wife filed for divorce.

Vitkus  later reconnected with his son, Dave, who became a police officer in Northampton, and the two of them went on an exhaustive hunt together for information about Vitkus’s past.  They first went back to Belchertown, which was then in the final process in the early 1990’s of closing, and later to court houses across the state for information about Vitkus’s mother and family.  With the help of a probate court investigator, they eventually found two of Vitkus’s sisters and a brother, with whom he reunited.

At the age of 52, Vitkus remarried.  But his past still wouldn’t let him be.  When his son Dave applied for a sensitive federal job, Vitkus was questioned during the background check by FBI agents. The agents, who knew about Vitkus’s background, interrogated him regarding some unsolved crimes. It was another reminder that his past was still a part of who he was and who people perceived him to be.

Vitkus eventually lost his job due to the continuing decline of the manufacturing industry in western Massachusetts. But it was the beginning of a new career in caregiving to people with developmental disabilities. He earned an associates degree in human services at Holyoke Community College — his college education was funded by the company that had laid him off.  He began working in a group home and took on a difficult resident there in whom he recognized potential as well as some of his own character traits.

A lingering irony

For me, this book highlights a key irony in the history of Belchertown and the other facilities like it in Massachusetts. The irony lies in the aftermath of the class action lawsuit that Ben Ricci filed in the 1970’s with the help of Beryl Cohen, a Boston attorney, who was the 16th attorney Ricci had approached. The federal court case was overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro, who required major improvements in care and conditions in the facilities.

While the state ultimately spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the institutions and the care provided in them, governors of Massachusetts began a major push starting in the 1990’s to close those same facilities and privatize their services.

The question remains whether the privatized group home system is a truly adequate replacement for the upgraded institutions.  As Orzechowski states at the end of the book, Vitkus:

…knows that abuse and neglect still exist in the system. Battles involving agencies like the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, privately contracted vendors, families, whistle blowers and advocates continue—often in court—across the United States.

Ultimately, “You’ll Like it Here” is an uplifting account of the life of a man who survived some of the worst experiences life has to offer. If you want to get a sense of what it was like, and what it took to survive, in large institutions before the intervention of people like Ben Ricci, Beryl Cohen, and Judge Tauro, you should read this book.

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  1. Richard Faucher SR
    October 27, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    I don’t know of any abusive issues at the Paul A Dever Institution in Taunton Mass., but I do remember clearly some disturbing issues when I came back from the service in 1975. My parents and I belonged to the Parents Assoc of Dever. It was a very active group of parents and siblings…My Brother went there when he was 3 years old and every weekend my parents would drive down to Taunton from Malden to see him. One time the Parents Assoc. received permission to visit a few facilities. Time frame about 1975-76. I remember going from one building to another through underground passageways, filthy, rat infested, and seeing electric shavers along the way positioned on the wall shelves. We went into one building that housed men of all ages and my Brother at that time was living on a military style cot in a room with about 30-60, (I don’t remember the exact amount, but there were at least 30 ) men ranging all ages. He was 13 or 14 at that time. There was one large bathroom where all would bathe. It smelled of urine and when I asked the attendant why it smells of urine, he stated that the state only gives them a few gallons of bleach to wash the smell away either for the laundry or disinfectant for the bathroom. I decided right then and there, with my parents permission, my Brother was coming home to live with us….The last stop on our tour was the hospital. It was old looking and dank. We learned that patients who were operated on were transferred up the same elevator as the garbage. There were not fire escapes on the outside of the building. That’s all I have to say …

  2. Robin Deininger
    October 28, 2016 at 1:04 am

    My heart goes out to Mr. Vitkus and I am so sorry for all the abuse he and others were subjected to at Belchertown. My heartfelt thanks goes to Benjamin Ricci, Beryl Cohen and Judge Joseph Tauro for improving the conditions at the institutions. My sister lives at the Wrentham Developmental Center and has been there since the age of 18. She lived at home before that time and was an emergency placement because of my mothers inability to properly care for her as a result of an illness. At the time (1974) the conditions were quite bad with overcrowding, lack of cleanliness and lack of personal attention. However, because of parent involvement and the above mentioned people, conditions have totally changed. My sister is receiving excellent care in a Cottage on the campus of Wrentham. She has her own bedroom, meaningful social and recreational activities, adult education, physical training and in addition to all this she is HAPPY. She is out in the community bowling, dining and shopping with her caregivers. My sister is profoundly intellectually disabled. I (who loves her as a sister, but feels a bit more like her mother) feel there should be a place like Wrentham Developmental Center for those who are being well cared for there. I also think there should be other placements (which are well run) for the intellectually disabled who can not have access to the wonderful care that my sister receives at Wrentham Developmental Center.

  1. January 10, 2017 at 6:39 pm

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