Pennhurst & PA Deinstitutionalization


Pennhurst closed, but litigation continued through 1990s to enforce the settlement agreement

Halderman v. Pennhurst was originally filed in 1974 on behalf of Terri Lee Halderman, who at the age of 20 had suffered a series of often-unexplained injuries during her ten years at Pennhurst. The initial lawsuit sought damages and institutional improvements at Pennhurst, but recognizing that segregated institutions are inherently discriminatory, we entered the lawsuit aiming to close Pennhurst.

The case went to trial in 1977, and District Court Judge Raymond J. Broderick gave a sweeping ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor, ordering the State to develop community placements and services for all Pennhurst residents. The Court wrote:

Conditions at Pennhurst are not only dangerous, with the residents often physically abused or drugged by staff members, but also inadequate for the ‘habilitation’ of the retarded. Indeed, the court found that the physical, intellectual, and emotional skills of some residents have deteriorated at Pennhurst.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision, and the order went into effect in 1979, securing community living arrangements first for school-age Pennhurst residents.

In 1980, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Pennhurst case for the first of three times. Though it agreed that conditions at Pennhurst were “dangerous,” the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling. The Court ruled that much of the Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act was essentially meaningless – that the law’s statement that people with disabilities “have a right to appropriate treatment, services, and habilitation” in “the setting that is least restrictive of . . . personal liberty” was advisory and not legally binding.

Hearing the case again, the Third Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, this time on the basis of a state law. And again, the Supreme Court overturned the Third Circuit’s ruling in 1984. The Court ruled in this second decision that lawsuits like Pennhurst cannot be brought to stop violations of state law by state officials.

Nevertheless, Pennhurst’s population was declining rapidly, with only 600 residents remaining in 1983 and a new Secretary of Public Welfare proposing a plan to move almost all of them into the community. After the Supreme Court’s second decision – a decade after the start of litigation – a settlement was reached to close Pennhurst by 1986 and to move residents of all of Pennsylvania’s institutions into the community when possible.

Pennhurst ultimately closed in 1987, though litigation continued through the 1990s to enforce the settlement agreement, which, despite Pennhurst’s closure, was not being well implemented. Many former residents were not being given the individualized services the consent decree required the state provide them, and the court found both the state and the County of Philadelphia in contempt for numerous violations of the agreement.

Oral Argument 1980

Oral Argument 1983

Following Pennhurst’s closing, the Law Center in partnership with PARC continued to fight for community placements and services for the over 6,000 people still segregated in restrictive and dangerous institutions. Two especially large and dangerous institutions remained – Embreeville Center and the Western Center.