Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Opal Petty story

3703 students: When you see what happens to Darl, consider the following:

Opal Petty, whose lawsuit over her 51-year involuntary commitment in Texas mental institutions led to changes in state policy, died on March 10 in San Angelo, Tex. She was 86 and lived in Christoval, Tex.

The cause was pneumonia, said Linda Kauffman, the wife of Ms. Petty's nephew, Clint Denson.

Ms. Kauffman learned by chance at a 1986 reunion of her husband's family that Ms. Petty had been committed by her family to a state hospital in 1934, when she was 16. No one at the reunion knew exactly where she was at the time, Ms. Kauffman said in an interview, only that she was in some facility near where Ms. Kauffman lived.

When she got home to San Angelo, Ms. Kauffman called the institution closest to her home--the San Angelo State School, in Carlsbad--and found that Ms. Petty was indeed confined there.

She began to see Ms. Petty and arranged for her to make visits to the Denson home. The more she got to know Ms. Petty, Ms. Kauffman said, the more nervous and uncooperative school officials became.

Eventually she sought legal advice and was directed to Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who filed suit on Ms. Petty's behalf. Through pretrial discovery, it was learned that she had been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. But her lawyers argued that at worst she had had a psychotic depression. They also said she had suffered irreparable harm from being held in a "prison-like environment" for so long.

Dr. Jefferson Nelson, an Austin psychiatrist, testified, based on Ms. Petty's records and a personal examination, that she was psychotic when she was admitted, but that her symptoms quickly subsided, and that she should have been released.

He also testified that as a result of being institutionalized, Ms. Petty was afflicted with an "institutional syndrome" that left her withdrawn and unable to express emotion. . . .

Mr. Harrington said: "Being fundamentalist Baptists her family didn't approve of her wanting to go out dancing and such things. A church exorcism didn't work, so the family made the decision to commit her. One of her girl friends said she didn't see anything wrong with her."

After Ms. Kauffman found her, Ms. Petty was furloughed from the state school and lived with Ms. Kauffman and her husband for almost 20 years. She was employed at a workshop for people with mental disabilities, and bought dolls to add to a collection she had started while confined.

"They were her family," Ms. Kauffman said. "When she was buried she was surrounded by her dolls."
You can read the complete New York Times obituary by clicking here.

comments: 0