A half-century ago this summer, amid the turbulent political and social upheavals of the era, WC AU-TV (Channel 10) broadcast an unprecedented investigative news series that shocked a local and national viewing audience. Each evening from July 1 to 5, 1968, Bill Baldini’s searing expose, “Suffer the Little Children,” focused on inhumane conditions at Pennhurst State School and Hospital. The work shattered Philadelphians’ and other Americans’ easy complacency and blind indifference to what had been occurring for decades behind institutional walls far removed from public scrutiny.
As we now know, the Pennhurst story was repeated at many of the nearly 300 state facilities across the country. Baldini’s sparse narrative and compelling film footage documented the wanton neglect, indignity, and mistreatment of society’s most vulnerable citizens — individuals with intellectual disabilities — who were incarcerated without their consent.
Over nearly eight decades (1908 to 1987), Pennhurst was “home” to 10,600 children and adults with cognitive disabilities who were judged to be unproductive, “degenerate,” and a social menace. Medical experimentation, cruel punishments, and the constant threats to physical and psychological well-being were part of the institutional culture. In the process it became, as one newspaper put it, “the shame of Pennsylvania.”
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By the 1960s, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was appropriating more than $2 million a year for Pennhurst’s operations, and the facility’s residents were impressed into a forced labor system the Supreme Court would rebuke as peonage, or involuntary servile labor akin to slavery. Residents had lost their fundamental freedoms, including the right to leave or to exercise the most basic of life’s choices.
At a critical moment in late June 1968, journeyman reporter Baldini ventured to Pennhurst in search of a story. Unwilling to take “no” as the official response to his inquiry, Baldini gained unheard-of access to the interior of the sprawling complex in rural Chester County. What resulted was remarkable, indeed earth-shattering in its consequences. No reporter had ever been given such unrestricted admission, let alone the unfettered ability to film what he witnessed first-hand.
“Suffer the Little Children” — its title taken from the Gospel of Mark — introduced a new style of television journalism and in the process contributed to a revolution in public policy and constitutional rights regarding individual with disabilities. Images of half-clothed children and young adults wandering aimlessly in overcrowded day rooms were accompanied by a cacophony of sounds, assaulting the senses at each turn.
In demonstrating the persuasive power of the media to shape public opinion, Baldini offered an implicit criticism of government policy while holding out the possibility of a more humane and compassionate future. Baldini himself was physically and emotionally exhausted by the last night’s broadcast, and his viewing audience was left to ponder how this could be happening in Pennsylvania and America. The broadcast was a foundational moment in the burgeoning disability civil rights movement, said to be America’s most undervalued freedom struggle.
As a nation we would do well to recall how Bill Baldini and other advocates struggled to protect those who could not protect themselves. Theirs was a call for the nation to change direction and embrace the better angels of our nature.
Dennis B. Downey is professor of history emeritus at Millersville University, a past president of the Pennsylvania Historical Association, and co-author with James W. Conroy of a forthcoming book on Pennhurst and the struggle for disability rights.