Saturday, May 17, 2014
WILLARD DRUG TREATMENT CAMPUS
7116 County Route 132
P.O. Box 303
Willard, NY 14588-0303
After my post yesterday, 1893 State Hospital Cadavers, a reader asked, “How long did this go on?” I didn’t know but I felt that it didn’t go on for very long. I was thinking about 20 years or so. Another reader stated that it is still the law in New York State and she included a link to the statute. She was right and I was very wrong! After reading the law I was amazed at how little it has changed since 1893. The reason I thought that this practice didn’t go on for very long is because of the thousands of anonymous graves in every state of this country. Even today cemeteries have special lots that are reserved for the poor and for bodies that no one has claimed. According to this law, one would think that any body that wasn’t claimed within the 48 hour time period would be given to a medical university but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Willard State Hospital Cemetery, which was used for 130 years, has close to 6,000 unmarked, anonymous graves. This cemetery is the final resting place of the patients that no one claimed. That’s only 1 New York State Hospital out of 17. I’m sure that somewhere there is a list of those deceased patients whose bodies were given in the name of medical science. That information would certainly be in the patient’s medical records which as of this date, are unavailable to the public. If anyone can explain this law further, please feel free to do so. If you would like to learn more about this subject, please click on the RED links below.
N.Y. PBH. LAW § 4211 : NY Code – Section 4211:
Cadavers; Unclaimed; Delivery to Schools for Study.
“1. Except as hereinafter provided, and subject to the conditions specified in this article, the director or person in charge of any hospital, institution, morgue or other place for bodies of deceased persons not interred or otherwise finally disposed of, and every funeral director, undertaker or other person having in his or her lawful possession, any body of a deceased person for keeping or burial, shall deliver every body of a deceased person in his or her possession, charge, custody or control not placed therein by any person, agency or organization for keeping, burial or other lawful disposition to:
(a) any medical college, school or institute including chiropractic colleges registered by the regents of the university of the state of New York as maintaining a proper standard;
(b) any university within the state authorized by law to confer degrees of doctor of medicine or doctor of dental surgery;
(c) any other college or school incorporated under the laws of the state of New York for the purpose of teaching medicine, anatomy or surgery to those on whom the degree of doctor of medicine has been conferred;
(d) any university within the state of New York having a medical preparatory or medical postgraduate course of instruction; or
(e) any college, school or institute maintaining a mortuary science program that has either been approved by the department or holds a certificate of accreditation from an accrediting organization recognized by the department pursuant to article thirty-four of this chapter, provided, however, that such bodies remain unclaimed by any of the aforementioned institutions. Any college, school or institute maintaining a mortuary science program may only claim and utilize such bodies for anatomical and embalming instruction purposes.
2. The professors and teachers in every university, college, school or institute hereinbefore specified may receive the body of a deceased person delivered or released to the university, college, school or institute, as herein provided, for the purposes of medical, anatomical and surgical science, anatomic embalming, and study.
3. No body of a deceased person shall be delivered or released to or received by, any university, college or school or institute.
(a) if, within forty-eight hours after death it is desired for interment or other lawful disposition by relatives and in the counties of Oneida, Onondaga, Oswego, Madison and Cortland, by relatives or friends, or,
(b) if prior to his or her death, the person shall have expressed a desire that his or her body be interred or otherwise lawfully disposed of, is carrying an identification card upon his or her person indicating his or her opposition to the dissection or autopsy of his or her body, or,
(c) if the deceased person is known to have a relative whose place of residence is known or can be ascertained after reasonable and diligent inquiry.
4. (a) A body of a deceased person shall not be delivered or released to, or received by a university, college, school or institute, if within twenty-four hours after notice of death by the person having lawful possession, charge, custody or control to the next of kin, or in the counties of Oneida, Onondaga, Oswego, Madison and Cortland to the next of kin, or friend of the deceased person such next of kin or friend shall claim such body for interment or other lawful disposition.
(b) Unless a relative or friend of the deceased person shall claim the body of the deceased person within forty-eight hours after death, or within twenty-four hours after receipt of notice of death as provided in paragraph (a) of this subdivision, the next of kin, relatives or friends, as the case may be, shall be deemed to have assented to delivery or release to, and receipt by the university, college, school or institute, of such dead body.”
“The State Board of Charities, of which Dr. Charles Hoyt is the Secretary, and Prof. Theodore W. Dwight the President, has just issued its fifth annual report. The duty of this Board is to inspect the public charities of the State, and make such recommendations to the Legislature as they deem best on their management. Few who have not studied the subject can have an idea of how broad is the field of work of our charities receiving aid from the State. Their property interest alone is enormous, amounting during the past year to $20,450,272 of real estate, and $3,727,602 of personal property. The aid they received from the State Treasury reached the sum of $1,635,558, and from municipalities the large amount of $3,341,762, while their total annual receipts were $7,832,902, and their expenditure $7,259,568. The whole number of persons in these institutions during the year was 92,741; the number temporarily relieved, 98,368; the number receiving outside free medical and surgical aid, 294,364, and the number under gratuitous educational training, 70,339.
In the County Poor-houses alone were, during the year, 18,933, and in the City institutions 39,286 persons. The Houses of Refuge trained and sheltered 5,619 of our youth, the Catholic Protectory containing much the largest number, 2,380. Of idiots, 681 were specially cared for, and of inebriates, 315 in the Binghamton Asylum. The number of deaf and dumb instructed and relieved were 714; of blind, 549; of insane, 5,073.
The report of Prof. Dwight in regard to the management of our County Poor-houses contains suggestions of the highest value. It is well known that when this Board began its labors, the condition of these misnames houses of charity was shocking in the extreme. There was but little classification; old and young, unfortunate, virtuous girls with abandoned prostitutes, children and hardened ruffians, sand and insane, sick and well, the purely unfortunate and the lazily vicious, were all herded together in one building, and sometimes in the same rooms. The result was that one of the most terrible diseases which can afflict a civilized community began to break out here in our rural districts-hereditary pauperism. The Secretary of the State Board visited one almshouse in Western New-York where four generations of females were prostitutes and paupers. Even at this time, in the Westchester Almshouse, there are two or three generations of paupers. The treatment of the insane and the blind or deaf or sick in these institutions was simply atrocious. The first great step of reform in the State was the classification of the insane, and the withdrawal of large numbers from the County Poor-houses and the placing them in the State Willard Asylum, on Seneca Lake.
Still another important measure was the separation of the pauper children in Broome County and several adjoining counties from the almshouses, and placing them in an institution near Binghamton, called the “Susquehanna Valley Home.” This wise measure, however, should at once be imitated in all parts of the State. A poor-house is no place for children. They catch the bad habits of the institution, and they grow up lazy and dependent. They are paupers even in childhood. The taint of an almshouse rest on them all their days. Of girls, it is well known that they are often corrupted in these places before they go forth in life. There is no excuse in this country for retaining a single child in a poor-house. The demand everywhere for children’s labor is beyond all supply, and thousands of homes are open to shelter and instruct such unfortunate children. Before the Randall’s Island Nursery was so exclusively under Roman Catholic influence, the Commissioners of Charities used to send forth each year hundreds of their little waifs, under the charge of the Children’s Aid Society, to homes in the West, where many have grown up as prosperous farmers. All our almshouses could easily thus dispose of their children, if of sound mind and body. Indeed, the report of the “State Charities Visiting Society“-alluded to very favorably in Prof. Dwight’s report-states that the Children’s Aid Society had offered to the Westchester County Poor-house where are housed some sixty pauper children-to send them all to homes without expense.
The only place for a pauper child is a family. Even the Binghamton Home would fail of its great object if it retained the children during any long period. We trust that an act will pass during this session of the Legislature, requiring the Superintendents of the Poor in the various counties to place their pauper children in intermediate houses, like the Susquehanna Valley Home, which institutions shall be under State and private management. Every five counties should be allowed a “Children’s Home,” and the counties need not be required to pay any more for the support of the children than they do now. Then each Home should be required to place out very carefully every sound pauper child after a six months’ residence. Prof. Dwight also recommends, very wisely, the establishment of “industrial almshouses.” Our county poor-houses are full now of able-bodied paupers. Each Winter they sail in there for harbor. They ought to be made to support themselves. As it is now, the county paupers of the State only pay one-fifth of their cost, or about $32,342. If State work-houses were established these county able-bodied paupers could be separated, classified, and made to earn their living. Then the county houses could be limited to the sick, aged, and helpless. All that considerable class, moreover, who commit minor offenses, and are put for short periods in county jails, ought to be placed where they would support themselves, and at the same time learn some useful branch of industry.
At present these petty criminals spend their time in complete idleness in the county jails, and go out worse than they entered. To improve this class there should be a separate department in the State work-houses proposed, and the criminal statutes should be changed, so that the magistrates could commit them to these, and for longer terms than is at present the custom. We trust that the present Legislature will enlarge the authority of this Board, and enable it to go on with the great reforms which it has inaugurated.”
Here is the link to Jon Crispin’s beautiful new website, Willard Suitcases.
Originally posted on Jon Crispin's Notebook:
Central stairway, Chapin House, Willard Asylum
There are a lot of great and interesting people working on New York State asylum issues. I have been following Lin Stuhler’s work on the Willard cemetery for a while, but only had the chance to meet her a few months ago. We keep in touch, and she just emailed me with a link to her recent blog post about the recent open house, and the bill she has been pushing in the state legislature to name the people buried at the graveyard. There is also a link to a really great video that was made by her local cable company. It is an interesting post and there is some nice video footage of some of the buildings and the cemetery. She has a real passion for this issue and should be commended for all the hard work she has done in the name…
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This is a very interesting article from The New York Times. It refers to an unnamed “lunatic boy” who was mistreated at the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. The Superintendent of the asylum was Dr. C.H. Nichols, formerly of the Bloomingdale and Utica Asylums for the Insane of New York State. The Government Hospital accepted veterans, pauper, and pay patients. The article speaks of the Testimony before a House Committee (of Congress), and alleges that veterans of the Civil War and pauper inmates, including women, were being beaten and whipped; starved; served rotten meat and butter; and were covered with vermin (hair and body lice), while the pay patients were treated humanely and were kept in good physical condition. The article speaks of the barbaric treatment in various insane asylums and county poor houses in the United States but gives praise to the Willard Asylum for its mild and humane treatment “of the wildest and most incurable cases from the county poor-houses.”
Back to the “lunatic boy.“ It is often difficult to figure out who people were from old newspaper articles because although the reporter knew who this boy was, he didn’t state his name. While trying to uncover the identity of the boy, I came across an old document/pamphlet entitled The government asylum. Horrible and extreme cruelty to the army and navy patients, Supplement only, July 1876, written by Mary J. Van Keuren. Mrs. Van Keuren’s son, William Edgar Van Keuren, a veteran, was horribly mistreated at the Government Asylum. She wrote the piece about the testimony given before Congress that included the cases of: OLIVER D. AMBROSE, THOMAS W. WHITE, GENERAL LOOMIS, and WILLIAM EDGAR VAN KEUREN (Edgar). After reading the account of the testimony, I believe that the unnamed “lunatic boy” was OLIVER D. AMBROSE, who “became insane from the effect of the assassination of President Lincoln, who happened to be sitting near the box in which Mr. Lincoln was killed. When Booth jumped out of the box Oliver shouted “Booth!” Booth!” Although I could not find any statement regarding Oliver’s age, the account suggests that he was a minor, was not insane, was beaten and starved, and was kept in the asylum for eight weeks without ever being seen or evaluated by a doctor.
The Case Of The Lunatic Boy.
“The testimony before the Committee on Expenditures, of the House, on Thursday, as to the management of the Government Hospital for the Insane, at Washington, was certainly painful enough. The institution evidently ought to be overhauled. But we wish some committee could examine various rural hospitals for the insane throughout the country, and especially the insane wards of the county poor-houses. Such treatment as the poor crazed boy received in Washington is mild and humane compared with that dealt to lunatics in these places in every State of the Union. Such a committee would discover in these “dark places of the earth,” lunatic women, often those who had seen better days, shut up in dark cells or cages, without clothing, cold, often hungry, devoured by vermin, besmeared by filth, chained, of, if loose, associating with vagabonds, paupers, and drunkards, and frequently debauched and ruined by them. The visitors of the insane wards in the poor-houses of the United States know that there is appearing in them what might be called a new and horrible human variety – a race, the offspring of the lunatic and the drunkard, of the crazed pauper and the vicious vagrant. In these “asylums” men are known who have been in chains and cages for years, some some confined as to be deformed for life; some scarred and marked by fetters and whips, without clothing, and treated during these long years worse than the brutes. Our readers have only to refer to the reports of such associations as the New-York Prison Association, the New-York and Pennsylvania State Boards of Charity, or the reports from every State of those experts and philanthropists who have visited and studied our county alms-houses where the insane have been cared for, to convince themselves that such facts as have been uncovered at Washington are common in every State of the Union.
The truth is that the condition of the insane poor in the United States is a disgrace to our humanity and civilization. The wonder is that it has continued as it has so long. Not a year has passed for fifty years, in which reports of experts have not exposed these abuses. Such philanthropists as Miss Dix, Dr. Willard, and others have spent their lives in seeking to reform them. Our own State Board of Charities, under Dr. Hoyt, have struggled incessantly with them. And it is only within a few years that in this State, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania a few victories over stupidity and barbarism begin to crown the long contest. In the West and South, and a large part of the Middle States, the condition of the insane, where they have no money, is still discreditable to our civilization and Christianity.
It will be said that this occurrence in Washington is different from what happens in county poor-houses, in that the Washington Asylum receives pay patients. But it will be found that the management of many asylums in the country districts, for patients of means, is disgraced by the old punishment and restraint system. In England, the old barbaric methods of handling the insane have been given up. “Non-restraint” is the rule. The vigorous exertions of the Commissions of Lunacy throughout the Kingdom have cleansed the “dark places of cruelty” of their abominations. A new and violent patient is seldom confined, or at most with the camisole or shirt, but is placed between two attendants, or is put in a padded room, where he cannot injure himself. Chains and blows, cages and cells, hunger and cold, are given up as means of curing lunacy. The lunatic is considered a patient under a peculiar disease, who can be broken of bad habits by kind and wise treatment, even as a child is. No asylum in this country has carried out the non-restraint principles so far as the best English asylums; but what has been accomplished by a singularly mild and humane treatment at the Willard Asylum of this State of the wildest and most incurable cases from the county poor-houses, shows what can be done by humanity and science combined. Such a treatment as that of the poor boy in the Washington Asylum, which might occur in many others, ought to be as much a thing of the past as the pillory, or whipping, or ear-cropping of our colonial days. And yet many a reputable asylum resorts to it. It would be a happy result of this cruelty if Congress could appoint a Commission of Lunacy which might help to reform such abuses throughout all the States, until every lunatic in the country was treated – as he should be – as an unfortunate and diseased human being.”
I am the first to admit that I didn’t have a clue about what mental illness really is, and I have never claimed to be an expert on this issue, because I am not. When I discovered that my great-grandmother was sent to Willard State Hospital at the end of her life, it made my stomach flip and I felt overwhelming sadness. I remember reading her obituary over and over again to see if I had read it correctly. I even asked myself, could there be another state hospital at Willard that wasn’t a mental institution? Did she really die there? Why was she sent there? What was her diagnoses? Before I lose your attention, let me explain who was sent to Willard so that you will no longer be uneducated, unaware, or uninformed. Anyone who was not considered “normal” was sent to Willard including the elderly with Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Remember, there really were no nursing homes until the 1950s. Others were Hearing Impaired, had Developmental Disabilities, were Trauma Victims including Victims of Domestic Violence and Rape (back then they called it “Seducer’s Victim”), had PTSD (Soldier’s Heart & Shell Shock), Menopausal Women, Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Brain Injuries, Stroke Victims, Epilepsy, Neurological Disorders, Psychiatric Disorders, and some were locked up because of their sexual orientation, personal beliefs, and religious beliefs.
You have to ask yourself, why are we so ignorant on this issue? Why are we receiving the great majority of mental health information from television commercials put out by the pharmaceutical companies and Dr. Phil? God Bless Him! Why is the jail at Riker’s Island being used as the largest mental health facility in the country? This is how we used to treat the mentally ill 150 years ago. When we pay our taxes which is a huge burden on the people of New York State, we assume that the people appointed to these high paying positions are actually doing their jobs and taking care of the people they are supposed to be advocating for; those who need the most help. Obviously, this is not the case and this abuse of the public trust needs to end.
Are burial records available to the public? Yes, but you would have to sit in the town clerk’s office and pull out each record that applies to that county’s particular state hospital or custodial institution. If you post their names online, you run the risk of being charged $10,000 for each violation, or each person. It would be much easier to record this information from each institution’s burial ledgers. Is it ridiculous that the Office of Mental Health classified burial records from state facilities as medical records? Yes. Were they really protecting the identities of former patients? No. In every correspondence that I received, it was made crystal clear that this was done to protect the families because some may find it offensive. Not only has the OMH insulted families and descendants of these people who were buried in anonymous graves, they have contributed to the stigma. They need to step out of the way, focus on the living, and hand over the burial ledgers to cemetery groups and responsible volunteers who will get the job done at NO cost to the state. Our ancestors and our families have nothing to be ashamed of! That would be like being ashamed of heart disease or diabetes. Putting names on a memorial, headstone, or list, should not be offensive to anyone, unless, of course, you are ignorant.
The list of these former New York State Hospitals includes but is not limited to: Binghamton, Buffalo, Central Islip, Dannemora, Edgewood, Gowanda, Hudson River, Kings Park, Long Island, Manhattan, Matteawan, Middletown, Mohansic, Pilgrim, Rochester, St. Lawrence, Syracuse, Utica, and Willard. The Feeble-Minded and Epileptic Custodial Institutions of New York includes but is not limited to: Craig Colony for Epileptics, Letchworth Village for Epileptics & Developmentally Disabled, Newark State School for Developmentally Disabled Women, Rome State School for Developmentally Disabled Adults & Children, and Syracuse State School for Developmentally Disabled Children. There may be more.
On Saturday, May 18, 2013, I visited the Willard Cemetery for a second time. This was the day of the annual Willard Tour that benefits a day care center on the old Willard property. Hundreds of people attended the tour and a good crowd gathered at the cemetery. Quite a bit has changed since my first visit on May 14, 2011, when the grass was up to my knees and no one was there but me, my husband, and two of our friends. It was a very sad place. The Willard Cemetery Memorial Project was formed by Colleen Kelly Spellecy in 2011. She has done a fabulous job organizing the group, having a sign installed at the entrance, raising awareness about the project, getting the cemetery lawn mowed, and collecting donations. I was happy to see so many concerned people at the cemetery.
Now there is hope, not only for the Willard Cemetery but for all state hospital and custodial institution cemeteries across the State of New York. A bill was introduced to the NYS Legislature in March 2012 and was re-introduced on January 18, 2013 as S2514-2013. If this bill becomes law, then the names of our forgotten ancestors will be released. They will finally be honored and remembered with dignity. This bill specifically addresses the “burial records” issue. Although HIPAA has stepped out of the way to allow individual states to release “medical records” 50 years after a patient has died, I am not sure if this issue was specifically addressed in this bill. Let’s take one step at a time and be grateful for what is in the works right now! Anyone who has ever dealt with the New York State Office of Mental Health in trying to obtain any type of information on an ancestor, whether it concerns asking where they are buried or obtaining a medical record, knows how arrogant and non-responsive they are unless you have a Ph.D. after your name. This needs to change.
Another fact that people don’t realize is that the great majority, if not all, of these historical cemeteries are “inactive” which means no one else will be buried there. I hope that ALL names are released including more recent burials. For example, when Willard closed in 1995, a gentleman was transferred to another facility. When he died in 2000, he asked to be buried in the Willard Cemetery because this was his home. Who will be here in 2050 to add this man’s name to a headstone or memorial? Who allowed these cemeteries to become forgotten?
Who was sent to Willard? Anyone who was not considered “normal” including the elderly with Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Remember, there really were no nursing homes until the 1950s. Others were Hearing Impaired, had Developmental Disabilities, were Trauma Victims including Victims of Domestic Violence and Rape (back then they called it “Seducer’s Victim”), had PTSD (Soldier’s Heart & Shell Shock), Menopausal Women, Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Brain Injuries, Stroke Victims, Epilepsy, Neurological Disorders, Psychiatric Disorders, and some were locked up because of their sexual orientation, personal beliefs, and religious beliefs. These people, their families, and descendants, have nothing to be ashamed of. That would be like being ashamed of heart disease or diabetes. Putting names on a memorial, headstone, or list, should not be offensive to anyone.
Also attending the tour on this day was Seth Voorhees, Senior Reporter for the Time Warner Cable news channel YNN that serves Rochester and the Finger Lakes. Mr. Voorhees was genuinely interested in my mission to get this law passed in New York and offered me the opportunity of an interview. Although I am not a public speaker, I jumped at the chance to get the word out to a larger audience. I can’t thank him enough for all the time he spent putting this video report together. This piece aired on YNN, Saturday, May 25, 2013. I also need to thank Senator Joseph E. Robach for drafting and introducing the bill to the New York State Legislature. I hope this piece will raise awareness about the anonymous graves issue as this was never about patient confidentiality, it’s about respect.
The list of these former New York State Hospitals includes but is not limited to: Binghamton, Buffalo, Central Islip, Dannemora, Edgewood, Gowanda, Hudson River, Kings Park, Long Island, Manhattan, Matteawan, Middletown, Mohansic, Pilgrim, Rochester, St. Lawrence, Syracuse, Utica, and Willard.
The Feeble-Minded and Epileptic Custodial Institutions of New York includes but is not limited to: Craig Colony for Epileptics, Letchworth Village for Epileptics & Developmentally Disabled, Newark State School for Developmentally Disabled Women, Rome State School for Developmentally Disabled Adults & Children, and Syracuse State School for Developmentally Disabled Children. There may be more.
This photo is of the Civil War Veterans Section of the cemetery. They were provided with clearly inscribed headstones from the government. Colleen discovered that a few of them were not “inmates” of Willard but were residents of the town. I wonder how many other United States Veterans who served their country with honor but ended up at Willard are buried here among the 5,776 in anonymous graves?
Between 1869 and 1890, Willard Asylum for the “Chronic” Insane served the entire State of New York with the exception of New York, Kings, and Monroe Counties. After 1890, Willard State Hospital served the counties of Allegany, Cayuga, Genesee, Ontario, Orleans, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tompkins, Wayne, and Yates.
1916 Willard State Hospital.
Not Forgotten by Colleen Spellecy.
Transcribed Interview with Gunter Mingus and Mike Huff at Willard Cemetery – 9.26.2013 – by Colleen Spellecy.
Willard Cemetery Memorial Project “has grown out of the concern for the 5,776 Willard patients that are buried in unnamed and unremembered graves at Willard Cemetery, Willard, New York, as well as those buried at Ovid Union Cemetery in “Patients Row” and unmarked patients in Holy Cross Cemetery.”
Committee Members include Colleen Kelly Spellecy: Chairperson; Yvonne Greule: President Romulus Historical Museum; Janet Brown: Advocate for Memorial; Sheila Reynolds: Secretary Ovid Union Cemetery; Paulette Likoudis: Trustee Lodi Whittier Library; Gail Snyder: Town of Ovid Historian Advisory Board; Peg Ellsworth: Past President Romulus Historical Society; and Diane Valerio: Chaplain American Legion.
Colleen has done a fabulous job organizing this project: getting the cemetery lawn mowed, creating awareness about the project, collecting donations, and getting a sign installed to let people know that this is a cemetery. She has worked very hard on this project and I know that she will see it through until it is completed! I am sure that as this project progresses this group will need volunteers. Please contact Colleen Spellecy at: email@example.com to find out more information. To make a donation or to find out what you can do to help, please visit Willard Cemetery Memorial Project. Thank you for your interest!
The Lives They Left Behind Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic offered a ray of hope for people like me, who had discovered that an ancestor was a former patient who died at Willard State Hospital. I read the book in a day, not being able to put it down. I wanted to know more. I wondered what kind of treatment was given to my great-grandmother, and I wonder to this day. The significance of this book is that no others before Darby Penney and Peter Stastny had ever gone through the patient medical records and personal belongings in order to tell the patient’s side of the story. To learn more, please feel free to download, read, and share “Lost Luggage, Recovered Lives” by Peter Stastny, MD, and Darby Penney, MLS.
Darby Penney is a leader in the human rights movement for people with psychiatric disabilities. Peter Stastny is a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker. You may contact Ms. Penney to inquire about your ancestor’s suitcase at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit The Lives They Left Behind Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic Website.
Within the pages of this book is where I first learned about the anonymous graves at Willard State Hospital Cemetery. Further research led me to the discovery that burying former patients of New York State Hospitals and Custodial Institutions, in numbered, anonymous graves, was not the exception but the rule. As I have stated before, I am a Genealogy Geek who was inspired by Ms. Penney and her book, to get a law passed that will require the NYS Office of Mental Health to release the names; dates of birth and death; and the location of these historic graves, to the public so that these people may be honored and remembered with dignity. Even with the new HIPAA ruling that allows the release of medical records after 50 years from the time of the patient’s death, it appears that the OMH will not comply with the new ruling unless forced to do so. One wonders how and where they got the authority to classify the burial ledgers (cemetery records) in the same category as medical records? Why are the deaths of thousands of people being kept a secret?
Hopefully, the NYSOMH will release historic patient burial information and when they do, it will be a wonderful opportunity to educate the public about what mental illness is; to reassure people that they should not be ashamed; that help is available; and that no one needs to struggle alone. But as of today, they are sticking with “the very fact of one’s mental illness, and receiving professional help for such illness, can, if generally revealed, cause a person to be subjected to prejudice and stigma in one’s personal and professional life.” Does this statement really encourage people to seek help?
“The only exception would be if you believe a patient was buried in one of our cemeteries. If so, then with appropriate family linkage documentation, including birth and death certificates, we could provide you with information on the individual’s burial site.”
One of the first lessons that you learn when researching your family history is that people have common names. In other words, you are not the only person in the world who has your name. Lesson two is, anyone can claim to be anyone’s descendant in order to get a historic copy of a birth, marriage, or death certificate. The state does not know your genealogy, nor do they care because they’re making money on the deal. Note that after spending the money on this documentation, writing a letter, mailing it in, and waiting months for a response from the OMH, they state we could, instead of, we will, provide you with the information.
The following “Frequently Asked Questions” page is posted at NYS Office of Mental Health Last Modified: 11/15/2012.
“Q. Can I get a copy of a birth or death certificate for a family member that was a resident of one of the Office of Mental Health’s facilities?
A. Birth records, death records, and marriage records are considered Vital Records in New York State and generally can be accessed by the public. If you are interested in exploring this option, you can obtain more information on how to obtain these records on the New York State Department of Health’s vital Records website at www.nyhealth.gov
Q. I have been doing genealogy research and have discovered that one of my relatives was a resident at one of the Office of Mental Health facilities. I would like to find out any personal or medical information about them. Can I obtain a copy of these records?
A. The Office of Mental Health is dedicated to the maintenance of privacy and confidentiality of patient information. We feel this is especially true with regard to mental health treatment records. It has long been recognized that the very fact of one’s mental illness, and receiving professional help for such illness, can, if generally revealed, cause a person to be subjected to prejudice and stigma in one’s personal and professional life. We also recognize that effective and lasting psychiatric therapy can take place only in an environment of privacy and trust in which the patient knows that his/her statements will be held in confidence.
New federal regulations that govern the privacy of individually identifying health information, have underscored this requirement. While it has always been our position that a person’s right to confidentiality of clinical information does not change upon his or her death, federal regulations have given us some additional specific guidance on access to records of deceased patients. Therefore, we have recently modified our policy and procedures and require the following before we can provide any information from a deceased patient’s clinical record:
A. Birth records, death records, and marriage records are considered Vital Records in New York State and generally can be accessed by the public. If you are interested in exploring this option, you can obtain more information on how to obtain these records on the New York State Department of Health’s vital Records website at www.nyhealth.gov
B. If you are a family member of the deceased patient and the patient allowed our facility to share information with you while he or she was living, and it is reasonable to assume that the patient did not intend to revoke his or her permission to continue to communicate with you prior to his or her death, we may provide you with basic information about the patient’s condition and circumstances of his or her death, if appropriate.
C. If you are a family member of the deceased patient and the information from the patient’s record is relevant to your own health care, we can release the information to your physician, provided the physician submits a written request to us on your behalf.
D. If you are the executor of the deceased patient’s estate, or if you otherwise have legal authority to act on behalf of the patient or his/her estate, (e.g. you have letters testamentary issued by a court), we can release information to you upon your written request which documents and attests to your legal authority to act on behalf of the deceased patient. We can also release information to you if you obtain and provide us with the written consent from the executor or legal representative of the deceased patient.
E. In all of these cases, we are required to review the record prior to its release to ensure it does not infringe upon the privacy rights of any other individual who may be named in the record.
The only exception would be if you believe a patient was buried in one of our cemeteries. If so, then with appropriate family linkage documentation, including birth and death certificates, we could provide you with information on the individual’s burial site. Requests should be sent to John Allen, Consumer Affairs, NYS Office of Mental Health, 44 Holland Avenue, Albany, NY 12229.”