Home invasion: The Arizona Training Program at Coolidge is the only home some developmentally disabled people have known

Faye Arrington looked down at her 3-year-old twin sons, their tiny bodies curled toward each other like a pair of parentheses. She thought they looked lonely in their cribs, and Arrington wondered if she was doing the right thing.

She was committing her boys to an institution called the Arizona Children's Colony. That's what you did in 1952 with children like the Arrington twins, born with cerebral palsy and severe mental retardation, destined to live life in a semi-vegetative state (though they would surpass their life expectancy many times over).

The day they were born, Arrington's doctor told her to take them to the state mental hospital at 24th and Van Buren streets in Phoenix.

Instead, she brought them home, expecting to watch them die. Everyone told her to give up. When the twins both contracted staph infections around their second birthdays, a doctor agonized over whether to give them penicillin to save their lives. Arrington worked day and night to keep the babies alive, and she did it by herself.

In 1949, when Faye Arrington's sons were born, the implications of raising a disabled child were much different than they are today. There was no state Division of Developmental Disabilities to provide funding for therapy. There were no parental support groups. There was no nonprofit Arc or federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It took me 24 hours to feed them, and then I'd start all over again," says Arrington, now 75 and living off the little she saved working as a meat wrapper for more than 40 years. "I had no family supports, no nothing. And we were looked at as a bad family for having something like that."

She already had one daughter. She was pregnant with another who would also be born disabled. (Her husband divorced her and remarried after the birth of their fourth child.) She simply could no longer support young Darrell and Dorrell.

So on March 19, 1952, Arrington drove her boys from Mesa to the brand-new Arizona Children's Colony, six miles outside of Coolidge, a town southwest of Phoenix near Casa Grande. They were the facility's first residents.

Darrell and Dorrell Arrington are still there today, curving toward each other in a perfect mirror image. They can't stand to be apart. Their mother says their wheelchairs have to be parked next to each other in church so Darrell can reach out for his younger (by five minutes) brother's arm. Once he grabs onto it, he falls asleep.


A couple of years ago, Faye Arrington brought her children home to Mesa for the first time in more than 50 years. She sent out invitations with photos of Darrell, Dorrell, and their younger sister Darla Kay. More than 70 family members showed up to meet them. Some didn't even know they were alive — or, for that matter, had ever been born — until that day. Staff from Coolidge drove the Arrington siblings to Mesa and sent a nurse along to take care of them.

At the end of the day, they returned to the center. After all, that is their home.

The Arringtons and the other 129 people who live at the facility now known as the Arizona Training Program at Coolidge (ATPC) spend their days in relative peacefulness, but the world around them has changed.

Today, no one would dream of telling a mother to commit her handicapped child to an insane asylum, or any other kind of institution, for that matter. Starting in the '70s, the civil rights movement expanded to include people with disabilities and the truth about deplorable living situations in institutions began to come out. Nationwide, many facilities like ATPC have closed, as efforts are made to include developmentally disabled people in the community.

There's a huge stigma around the word institution — conjuring up images of shock treatments and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-style lobotomies. It's a picture that lingers in the minds of many disability advocates, who remember when ATPC was home to more than 1,000 people, with beds lined up in large barrack-style rooms and staff ill-equipped to take care of needy residents.

The picture is much different now. At the facility in Coolidge, things are tranquil. The Arrington twins, and others, are living out their "retirement" in a place where they are safe and well cared-for, according to their family members, staff at the facility and a bird's-eye view (a three-hour tour, earlier this year). In this case, the institution is anything but — it's their home, and it's the only one most of its residents have ever known.

But at the Arizona Legislature, the stigma lingers. Efforts are being made to shut the facility and move the residents into community group homes, or another intermediate-care facility. As it turns out, the man behind the current effort to close Coolidge is a direct competitor. He runs an Intermediate Care Facility for the Mentally Retarded in Phoenix, where it costs at least $112,993 per resident per year, only marginally less expensive than Coolidge when it comes to the facilities' needier residents.

Such efforts are nothing new. At a local level, the movement to shut Coolidge began in 1979, with a legislative footnote that forbade new clients. Nationally, a larger movement to close institutions began in the '70s, when the President's Committee on Mental Retardation vowed to reduce the number of institutionalized people by a third. The Reagan years brought budget cuts and the closing of even more institutions, and an important U.S. Supreme Court case ruled against forced institutionalization in 1999.

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6 comments
mrslrichard
mrslrichard

God bless I remember Margie and spent many nights listening to her play and sing. This article brought back many memories.

I worked at the Children's Colony back when it was ATPC, DDD, DISTRICT V. We had to go through vigorous training to work there and the training was ongoing even after we had been there for years. Everything from Client Intervention training to Total Communication and Adaptive Mealtime classes were offered so we would be well prepared to meet each individual's needs.

This all occured in the late 80s early 90s for myself. Many of the people there had been there most of their lives and were resistant to the ideal of its closing and being relocated. The Children's Colony was all they ever knew and was their home.

I am glad after all the Artcle 9 and Title 19 changes the government made one of them was not the closing if ATPC for the beloved people whom lived there their whole lives wanting nothing of the relocation, people like Sue Ann, Pilar, and of course Margie, god bless you all. I miss you so. We weren't just your Habilitation Technicians, we were family.

Maria Contreras
Maria Contreras like.author.displayName 1 Like

Hi, I have recently learned my mother along with her sister and brother were sent to a mental facility in coolidge and would like to know if this one was the only one, I'm guessing in the 60's? if so how can I learn more about this facility? and maybe some photos, I use to work for DDD and remember a video showing us the environment on the inside, is this available to the public? any and all information would greatly be appreciated as my mother has now passed and just need to know her upbringing as well as a friend of mine who has heard her mother was in there too, that is how our parents became friends and long time neighbors, thank you

mrslrichard
mrslrichard

I still have friends whom work there. What information are you trying to obtain? I can drop them an email for you.

Justin Marino AB MA
Justin Marino AB MA

I was an Education Specialist who was responsible for supervising teaching personnel in the Anne C. Dew School on the ATPC campus from 1970 to 1972. I was present when Vinnie Caruzo was active as a young man on campus. I would love to meet him again to congratulate him on his ability to make his home at the Coolidge facility. Please extend my best wishes to him if he remembers me. I was the person on staff that insisted he become the ATPC Mail delivery person because he could read and comprehend so well.

Merry Holidays and Best Wishes for a Wonderful New Year.

Sincerely, Justin Marino

Tammie Salke
Tammie Salke

Great story. I personally know the twins. I have worked at ATPC off and on since 1984. Started when I was 19. Many of our individuals wouldn't be here today if not for the care they receive at ATPC. There are Nurses 24/7. Many Dr.s, who see to the needs of those living there. Thank you for shedding some light on what goes on there. A big thank you from those who live there.

junior
junior

great article megan,as the parent of a special needs child your article was right on.those experts who beat there chest about closing down these types of places always forget to mention that when that happened alot of these people did not have families to take them in.a large percentage of them make up the homeless population that we have today and some worse yet wound up in the prison system.because at the time this happened most states did not have a system in place to handle this large population,they went as far as asking these people if they had any relatives living in other states,if they said yes i have a cousin in ohio they bought them bus tickets and sent them to ohio or where ever and never bothered to contact anyone there.60 minutes did a show about this a number of years ago.so much for these experts.by the way arizona ranks near the bottom of the 50 states for providing services to the special needs population.by the way the term mentally retarded is an offensive term to the special needs people.many of these people have physical problems but there brain is as sharp as yours or mine.god bless you for shedding light on the plight of these people.

 

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