State hospital patients’ deaths remembered

Posted on September 21, 2010


Tim Dugan was at work in Portland, Ore., Monday morning when he decided there was a memorial service he had to make. So the businessman jumped on a plane and arrived in time for a ceremony that evening on the former grounds of Camarillo State Hospital. His 36-year-old father, David, died at the institution in 1974 in what his son described as an unfortunate incident.

“I came here to make peace,” he said, adding that he was also carrying the thoughts of his father’s two sisters and brother.

The former Oxnard resident was one of close to 100 people who turned out for the twilight ceremony on the former hospital grounds Monday evening. It marked the first time Ventura County has participated in Remembrance Day, an event commemorating the tens of thousands of people who have died in state institutions in California. Nonprofit groups of advocates and clients have been holding the observances each September for eight years as part of the California Memorial Project, but until Monday one had never been held on the grounds of what was once California’s largest state hospital. Camarillo State housed more than 7,000 patients in the 1950s. It closed in 1997 after 60 years of operation. Organizers blame the delay on resistance by officials at the CSU Channel Islands campus, which opened on the grounds in 2002. Staff members, though, say organizers failed to go through proper channels until recently. The event lasted an hour, the rising moon casting light over the off-white walls of the complex. The event drew disabled people, their advocates, family members and at least a couple of CSUCI students. State officials have confirmed that more than 1,000 people died at the institution in its last 30 years of operation. They died of both natural and suspicious causes, investigations showed. Guest speakers at the observance included two former patients, who described vastly different experiences.

Celinda Jungheim, 71, of Marina del Rey said she spent a summer there in 1968 after her parents committed her on her 28th birthday. She described being overdrugged and wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia but said she found a great social worker who connected her with a recovery group.

“This is where I found the treatment that helped me,” she said.

But Vernon Montoya of San Diego said his 90-day stay in 1963 was “a nightmare.” He told the crowd he saw patients raped and beaten and knew of a 5-year-old boy who died after being raped by patients.

“I watched beatings; I watched rapes; I watched murder,” he said.

Montoya, 62, said he was 15 at the time he entered to be evaluated for his fitness for parole. In a brief interview afterward, he said he served two years at the California Youth Authority after being discharged from the hospital. He declined to say why he was in the penal system but said conditions were much better in the Youth Authority than in the hospital. Organizers spoke of the past but also of the need to honor the patients’ memory. After speeches and poetry readings, the group observed a moment of silence. As the event ended, the crowd cheered when red balloons were released into the air.

Robyn Gantsweg, a coordinator for Disability Rights California, said similar ceremonies were held Monday around the state. Nine other events were scheduled at state hospitals and cemeteries where patients were buried.

CSU officials said they had no choice but to charge the nonprofit groups a fee, based on state regulations and law. Gantsweg expected this one to cost $500. She hopes to get the university more involved next year and wants to erect a memorial to the patients on the site.

As for Tim Dugan, he was glad he made the trip.

“It was good,” said Dugan, who is starting a memorial scholarship in his dad’s name. “I didn’t know what to expect. I’m in the process of discovering my father’s history and his brief life.”

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Posted in: The Anti News