Going Home , Part 1: About Phillip

For 86 years the Exeter School , better known as the Ladd School, was Rhode Island’s only public custodial institution providing for the care and training of the so-called feeble-minded with the purpose of returning as many individuals as possible to the community to become “useful and well-adjusted citizens.”

In 1951, the rated capacity for this institution was 485 beds; but it was in fact occupied by 847 men, women and children, crowding as many as it was possible into existing dormitory facilities, and housing many more in what was originally used as the place’s only school building.

That year, 50 new patients were admitted to Exeter, 15 died, and only 7 were discharged.

This is a true story. Some names have been changed to obfuscate the identities of those individuals acknowledged.

February 18, 1951

This case was one of several in which commitment to Exeter School had been requested because of our limited contact with the family or child and because it was believed that if the child were feeble-minded, he should be committed to Exeter due to the fact that he was rapidly nearing his 18th birthday.

In fact, no contact had been made by this agency with the family up until the day I made a home visit to Mrs. Dorothy Green, mother of Phillip, who now lives in Providence on the first floor in a beautifully furnished six-room apartment. She has been married for five years to a Mr. Joseph Green, and there has been one child, a boy named William, born of this union.

It was late one morning when I contacted this family to inform them that their eldest child was to be committed to Exeter School and to ask them whether or not they had any objection to this plan. I began by introducing myself to the woman and explaining that I wished to speak to her because I was from the Children’s Division. “Oh yes,” she said, “you want to talk about Phillip.”

I explained that Phillip had turned 17 and that he had been in Exeter School for several years and that it was necessary at this time to determine whether or not the School should continue to be responsible for this child as the Children’s Division would soon terminate its responsibility. In the course of our conversation, I used the word “feeble-minded,” to which Mrs. Green appeared quite upset and asked me what was wrong with Phillip. But before I could answer her, she immediately informed me that she had never been to see her son; that she always wanted to but “the judge had told me never to see the baby after I went to court.”

She appeared, however, very interested in the child and asked many questions as to his whereabouts, appearance and his ability in various areas. Mr. Green participated frequently in the conversation and obviously was well aware of the entire circumstances surrounding Phillip’s birth and the disposition of the child since then. I attempted to explain that our meeting was merely a regular formality and had no actual bearing on his future as far as where he would live was concerned. I explained that children could be taken from Exeter School with the consent of that institution as well as they could be taken from the Children’s Division and that it was necessary, because of Phillip’s age, to determine whether or not he needed some kind of supervision in the future.

When I questioned the couple as to whether or not they wished to visit Phillip both of them answered immediately in the affirmative. They then, however, stated that they had no means of getting to the School and followed this up with asking me if I could possibly take them, which appeared to indicate that they had a genuine interest in wanting to visit and were not just using their explanations as a defense. I told them I would attempt to make some arrangements whereby they could visit the boy and also asked them to think over how they felt about him, what they wanted to do with the child and what they wanted me to do to help them. Before bidding farewell, I promised to call in two days and also planned in the interim to speak with Miss Frances Linden of Exeter School about Philip.

On the following Saturday I called Mr. Green, who had already spoken with Miss Frances Linden and had exhibited a tremendous amount of upset because of the fact that his wife had become hysterical after my visit and sobbed continually, “He’s feeble minded. He’s feeble minded. He must be awful.” So it was fortunate that they called Miss Linden, because she was able to interpret better than I exactly what “feeble-minded” meant and was able to get across to them that it was only a classifying term and had no real significance in indicating how a person performed socially or intellectually.

They seemed better able to accept “Exeter School” and “feeble minded” as a part of this child’s life during our phone conversation, and although I talked only with Mr. Green, much of the conversation was between husband and wife simultaneously. I told them I would be glad to have them visit Philip and take them down to Exeter School if they wished. Mrs. Green did not seem prone to making a visit at the institution, however, and began by saying that perhaps it would be better if she didn’t see the boy after all these years. I did not contest this point, but the woman’s own natural desire to see her son made her then ask if it would be possible to bring him to her home instead of having her visit the School.

I said I would attempt to make these arrangements.