James V. Healey

Inducted: 2013
Born: 1940
Died: 2017

Jim Healey was a two-sport all-state athlete in high school and the sparkplug of a South Providence sandlot baseball team that won five age-graded championships from 1953 to 1957. He was a member of the IBAA baseball team and the 1957 state CYO champion St. Michael’s team, both of which were captained by Patrick T. Conley, Historian Laureate of Rhode Island. A fierce competitor in collegiate and professional sports, Jim was noted for his “hustle.” Fortunately for those whose cause he championed through life, that hustle and persistence only intensified. He was born in Providence on March 8, 1940, son of James and Mary (Leahey) Healey.

Jim Healey’s unprecedented accomplishments over a 45-year career in the field of developmental disabilities made him one of the nation’s leading pioneers in that worthy endeavor. Jim was raised in South Providence and graduated from St. Michael’s School, LaSalle Academy, and Providence College. Then, he earned a master’s degree in special education from the University of Connecticut. In the early 1960s, he taught special education in Warwick, including participation in the state’s first high-school work-study program. He married Mary Lou (McCaffery), and the couple had four daughters.

In 1965, Jim became Rhode Island’s Director of Special Education, and from 1968 through 1971, he served as the assistant superintendent of the Paul Dever State School in Taunton. This institution housed over 2200 residents in outrageously debilitating conditions. Here, Jim revolutionized the concept of institutional care and treatment for those with special needs. After a successful, two-year effort to “clean the place up,” Jim undertook the first significant “deinstitutionalization” effort anywhere as he sent 800 Dever residents back into the community. The impact of that revolutionary move eventually spread throughout the country.

In 1971, Jim became the first full-time director of RI ARC and a lobbyist for mental health reform. Among his dozens of significant legislative efforts was a law that made Rhode Island the first state to enact a “right to education” statute for all children with disabilities. His persistence and creativity in generating appropriations from state and federal governments placed Rhode Island first in the country in program excellence and gave it the highest per capita operational and capital expenditures over three decades.

Jim Healey took significant risks to call attention to the scandalous conditions at Ladd School, and he was the prime mover in closing it down. Ironically, considering what would follow, humane care was the philosophy behind the General Assembly’s 1907 decision to establish a safe place for individuals deemed unable to care for themselves. At the time, many had been locked away in attics or basements or were homeless or incarcerated at the state poorhouse at the Howard complex in Cranston, where Eleanor Slater Hospital and the Adult Correctional Institutions stand today. There, they were further victimized.

“For a long time, it had been apparent to educators and officials of the State, the conduct of those offices brought them into contact with the defective, dependent, and delinquent classes, that there was a great need for an institution in Rhode Island where boys and girls, or even young men and young women, who were classed under the general head of ‘feeble-minded’ could be cared for, properly trained and instructed, and in the end made as far as possible self-supporting,” The Providence Journal wrote on Feb. 2, 1908, the day after Ladd opened.

The center was called the State School for the Feeble-Minded and was set in one building on the Hoxsie Farm, which had acres of land for future expansion. Its first superintendent was the young Dr. Joseph H. Ladd, who came to Rhode Island from Massachusetts. As it was later renamed, the Ladd School provided sanctuary for a time. It also served an ugly, if not officially proclaimed, purpose: it prevented its residents from marrying and having children, in accord with the national eugenics movement, which supported laws and policies aimed at preventing people judged “inferior” from reproducing, a policy implemented by Hitler. In other states, developmentally disabled women were forcibly sterilized, but Rhode Island had no such law, and there is no confirmed record of it happening.

By 1956, when The Journal published the first investigation of deplorable conditions at Ladd, the old Hoxsie Farm was a sprawling complex of overcrowded red-brick buildings where lives had been swallowed, its residents’ identities often erased. Tangible evidence can be found at Ladd’s forgotten cemetery, where small tombstones contain only serial numbers, no names or dates of birth or death. In their March 1956 investigation, “The Forgotten Two Percent,” Journal writers Selig Greenberg and George F. Troy Jr. chronicled horrors that could be traced to the early days of Ladd when its first superintendent lobbied the General Assembly for increased financial resources — and was met with legislative disinterest and worse.

“Dr. Ladd recalls that when he appeared before a state budget committee in 1913 to request an appropriation for teachers, he was told bluntly that ‘instead of teachers there should be established an asphyxiation chamber’ at Exeter School,” Greenberg wrote. Nazi Germany did establish them for the developmentally disabled. Ladd returned to Exeter after his 1913 State House appearance, The Journal wrote, “for a long and lonely siege of waiting and wrestling with inertia and neglect.”

Some progress eventually was made, but by 1956, during an era when Ladd’s population peaked at more than 1,000, The Journal found that “the legacy of gross neglect in the past and continued skimping on appropriations” had created a situation involving “the anguish of blighted lives, of the failure to salvage human material that is not beyond saving — a failure for which no dollar and cent yardstick can ever be devised.” Remedial efforts led to improvements, but by the late 1970s, Ladd was still more warehouse than home. In the wake of scandals in many states and the landmark 1966 exposé by Burton Blatt, “Christmas in Purgatory,” which included photographs of abused and neglected Ladd residents, a consensus was emerging across the U.S. that institutions had to be closed. Publication in 1972 of Wolf Wolfersberger’s revolutionary “The Principle of Normalization in Human Services” also proved instrumental.

Onto the local scene came James V. Healey, an advocate behind a 1978 federal class-action human rights lawsuit against the state. The first steps in building a community system were taken with the support of Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy and the General Assembly, where Rep. Paul V. Sherlock championed people with developmental disabilities. Time and again, voters approved bond issues to build community homes and programs.

The movement received a significant boost with the publication of “The Ladd School,” by Journal staff writers Peter Perl, Bruce DeSilva, and Thomas E. Walsh. The series documented “serious deficiencies in medical and dental services, inadequate staffing and poor training, overcrowding in some wards within the institution, improper medication, poor sanitation, and physical plant,” among other conditions. Some buildings were deemed fire traps. Convinced that the very existence of Ladd was intolerable, Gov. Edward DiPrete, who followed Garrahy in office, announced in 1986 that the institution would close.

On July 26, 1986, Rhode Island became the first state in the country to announce that it would close its mental institutions. On March 23, 1996, Jim Healy experienced the thrill of watching the last five people leave Ladd. Next, he worked diligently to move all 110 residents languishing in the Pediatric Unit at the Zambarano Hospital into the community.

Among the significant pieces of state legislation, Jim sponsored or authored were those establishing a mandatory Early Intervention Program and a “6 or fewer” zoning law. Jim also initiated the state’s first Respite Care Program, designed and obtained funding for a Home-Based Therapeutic Program for the ever-increasing number of children diagnosed with autism, established a home-based program for medically fragile children, and organized most Rhode Island parent advocacy programs. Jim’s work in maternal health was a major factor in lowering Rhode Island’s infant mortality national ranking from a shameful #42 to #1 in only six years.

In the tradition of Congressman John Fogarty and in partnership with Senator John Chafee, Jim Healey has waged a lifetime campaign to free the mentally challenged from the bonds of institutionalization. He has been the maestro of their coming out party, and for this, Jim Healey was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2013.

James Healy died on Jan. 19, 2017, at the age of 77.

For further reading:

  • “The Forgotten Two Percent,” Journal writers Selig Greenberg and George F. Troy Jr., Providence Journal, May 8, 1986.
  • The Principle of Normalization in Human Services, by Wolf Wolfersberger, Sep. 8, 1972, John Wiley.
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