In A System Haunted

DeJarnette Sanitarium

It doesn’t take long if spending time among adoptees to learn about the strong link between foster care and adoption. Foster care is often the first step in that direction as children are removed from their parents and placed with strangers. The official goal is reunification of the family when it is deemed safe for the children to be returned to their parents. That does happen in many cases after an emotionally damaging experience for all concerned. Other times the parent’s rights are terminated and in the case of infants and young children, often these are adopted by the foster parents or some other hopeful adoptive parent. And in too many cases, these young children “age out” in the system and are thrown out into the world as young adults with few supports, though that situation has improved somewhat in recent years.

Yesterday, I learned about the link between the building pictured above and foster care. Dr Joseph DeJarnette was a proponent of racial segregation and eugenics, specifically the compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill. He was known to idolize Nazi Germany and took the facility under his management from a resort-like treatment center to an apocalyptic prison nightmare. His determined efforts resulted in the passage of the “Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924” (a.k.a Racial Integrity Act). This new act reinforced racial segregation by preventing interracial marriages and classifying “white” as being pure 100% Caucasian. Men and women who were admitted to his hospital were involuntarily sterilized to prevent the conception of mixed race human beings. DeJarnette also forcibly sterilized single mothers, alcoholics, those with mental conditions and epilepsy, the poor, and the incarcerated. Dr DeJarnette not only performed countless sterilizations but also medical procedures on his patients like electroshock therapy and lobotomies.

He died in 1957. DeJarnette became a state institution with a focus on children’s behavioral health issues. It is at that point in the history of this place that my interest today became awareness. If you believe emotional energy leaves traces of residual energy in a place, then in that sense DeJarnette is believed haunted. A young woman writing an op-ed for LINK> The Huffington Post brought that awareness to me.

At the age of 14, the author was relatively new to the foster care system and waiting for a bed to open up at a long-term facility. The author walked those halls, recognizes the once-grand arches that frame the doorways, the bedrooms with graffitied walls. She says, “Dr. Joe’s evil spirit is said to walk the halls. Some say they’ve heard children’s voices in the darkness or moans and other noises from the former patients reported to have perished due to medical experiments. I doubt the teens who once lived there were aware of Dr DeJarnette by name. I wasn’t. However, the building’s ties to eugenics were among the first things new kids learned about the center.”

She goes on to note that she asked – “Why did they do it?” And the answer she got was – “They think your kids are gonna end up like you. If we don’t have babies, they’ll be less of us and more of them.” She says – “I wasn’t totally sure what more of them meant but I understood less of us. Less of me.” She also shares that she lived in DeJarnette during the winter with the holidays were approaching. It was her first Christmas in the system. Her expectations were perpetually low back then. She fixated on the phrase anything you want when asked to provide a Christmas wish list with one condition – as long as it’s less than 10 dollars. She remembers asking for a Def Leppard tape even though she no longer had her boom box. Receiving the tape symbolized hope and the belief that someday, she would have a tape player again.

We don’t often consider what it is like for a teen living in foster care. That they don’t have typical teenage memories like going to the homecoming dance, having their first date, a sweet 16 party or getting a driver’s license. What she did get was a strong sense of her ability to survive. She made it through the system and didn’t become a statistic. She says that she is thriving today. She says of that residual energy – “when you consider the collective traumas and experiences of all those who spent time in that cavernous, state-run institution, there was plenty of haunting going on. It wasn’t ghosts, though. It was us.”

Inside DeJarnette Today

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