Library Collections: Document: Full Text

Where Toys Are Locked Away

Creator: n/a
Date: September 29, 1965
Publication: The Christian Century
Source: Available at selected libraries

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SENATOR Robert F. Kennedy's searing indictment of New York state's institutional care of mentally retarded children may not have been accurate in its minute details. Yet in their reply spokesmen for the Rockefeller administration had to accept as true Kennedy's general description of the deplorable conditions existing in state institutions for exceptional children. In an address to New York's joint legislative committee on mental retardation Kennedy stated that retarded youngsters "are denied the protection of the state education law which commands that all other children must receive an education" and that they are deprived of their civil liberties by being forced to live "amidst brutality and human excrement and intestinal disease." Christopher F. Terrence, New York's acting commissioner of mental hygiene, replied: "The department of mental hygiene and Governor Rockefeller have long been aware of the difficulties faced by the state schools as a result of the overcrowding and understanding stemming from rapidly increasing population." He promised early announcement of a master plan for treatment of the mentally retarded:


That Kennedy's denunciation of the conditions under which mentally retarded children must live in state institutions was more than politically motivated is evident in his willingness to put the blame on all parties: "Our shortcomings are due to no one man and no single administration. The burden is ours." Indeed, the Kennedy statement expressed controlled passions and sensitive insights which cannot be dismissed as merely political. His tours of the Rome State School for Mental Defectives and of the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island were -- as Republicans charged -- too brief for a survey. But brief as they were the tours enabled Kennedy to detect what drastic congestion does to the personalities of mentally defective children and to describe the effect of overcrowding and understating with tender insights which prove his genuine concern: "There is, of course, no room in such a ward for personal possessions -- for any shred of individuality -- for a toy, or some clothing, or a book. Think of how our children of five or six or nine treasure their possessions -- and think of them without any such possessions, or of any they do possess locked always in a closet. And what do they do during the day? Many just rock back and forth. They grunt and gibber and soil themselves. . . . But, for the most part, they sit -- too often in dimness and gloom and idleness and stench, staring at the wall or an attendant or an occasional strange visitor."


These words describe specific conditions which exist not in Red China or the Congo or Mississippi but in the Empire state, the rival with California for national leadership in human progress. If society neglects mentally retarded children so disgracefully in such a progressive state, can we assume that the other states are more enlightened, more responsible? We have no right to assume anything. We have the duty to know throughout the nation whether our governmental institutions minister humanely, compassionately, creatively to "the least of these." If it is a question of revenue we have the duty as a civilized people to provide whatever money is needed to give a measure of comfort and joy to those children and young people who are the innocent victims of nature's caprices. "We" means all civilized people, but in particular it means those of us who have received great material and spiritual blessings and who therefore in a special way stand in moral jeopardy and under divine judgment if we offend one of these little ones.