The Pineland Hospital and Training Center in 1962. There were many abuses at Pineland, including a sterilization program that began in the 1920s. Portland Press Herald file photo

NEW GLOUCESTER — A new podcast series featuring interviews with former residents of the old Pineland Center seeks to ensure history does not repeat itself, according to the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council.

“Life On My Own: Developmental Disabilities from Institution to the Community” is, in part, the council’s response to campus-like institutional centers for the developmentally disabled cropping up again in the last decade or so, said Nancy Cronin, the council’s executive director.

“That started getting very scary for us and we realized we’ve lost our history. And we’re starting to repeat our history,” she said.

The Pineland Center opened in the early 1900s as the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded and went through a series of reiterations including the Pownal State School, Pineland Hospital and Training Center, and finally Pineland Center. A landmark class-action lawsuit in the 1970s that alleged inadequate care and abuses against residents of all ages ended in a consent decree — a settlement was reached without an admission of guilt. The Pineland Center did not close for good until 1996.

Preble Courtesy of Maine Developmental Disabilities Council

Among those abuses was a sterilization program that ran until the 1960s.

Residents interviewed for the podcast series recalled “bodyguards” watching their every move, being forced into straightjackets when they were upset, and being treated “like a wild animal.”

The other goal of the podcast is to highlight the productive lives these former residents now have.

Maryann Preble, who was born in Bangor, lived at Pineland from age 10 until her late teens. Preble, now in her 70s, is a vocal self-advocate and sits on various councils, including the Maine DDC and University of Maine Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies Community Advisory Committee, said Jessica Groton, a program associate with the council.

In her interview with Keith Ludden of Oral History and Folklife Research Inc., she recalled that she was sent there after her parents died.

“I really, really, really didn’t like Pineland. It was really a bad place for people to be … Once I got to go out of Pineland, I was really glad to be out of there and not being punished for something I didn’t do,” Preble said in the podcast.

In an interview with the Lakes Region Weekly, Preble said that participating in the project was important for her.

“I’d like to get my story out there so people would know what institutions were like then … I tell people that when they come out places like that or be able to come out in a community and connect with other people … (You’re going to) experience something different than what you know.”

Restraint chairs, such as this one shown in a 1985 photo, were used at the Pineland Center. Pineland had been notorious for abuse, especially through the 1970s. Portland Press Herald file photo

After leaving Pineland, Preble lived with her brother but eventually moved into her own place and worked as an assistant at a daycare. She fell in love and got married. Preble now lives in Augusta and remains an active member of her community, from volunteering at a nearby nursing home and recreation center, to attending church and playing bingo with her friends.

Cronin said Preble’s is a “wonderful story of looking at somebody who everybody assumed couldn’t and watched how they could.”

Around the same time that Pineland closed in the 1990s, Maine became one of the first states to rebuild a community-living framework of small, six- to eight-bed group homes for individuals with developmental disabilities, Cronin said. But now she’s seeing larger group homes and campuses taking over smaller group homes. She added that especially now with the coronavirus outbreak, it’s becoming hard to ignore these large, congregate settings, calling them “tinder for COVID.”

In a 2016 report from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, 24 of the 100 or so private non-medical institutions with adult residential facilities had eight or more beds. When including places with six- and seven-bed occupancies, that number more than doubled.

For children’s residential facilities, about half had occupancy for eight or more beds. The largest program was at KidsPeace in Ellsworth, which reported a 22-bed occupancy.

“The council wants people with developmental disabilities (to be) able to live in communities and be valued members of communities. We’re looking at individuals with developmental disabilities only as people we need to take care of … It’s easier to create institutions and I think the social cost of that is enormous,” Cronin said.

Cronin added that the council hired a historian to research Pineland and the history of developmental disability policies in Maine.

“The reason (people with developmental disabilities) have a better life is because of the individuals before that said we deserve better … That’s why we’re doing this podcast and this history. Because if not, we will repeat the history.”


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