FOR OUR MOST CHALLENGED CHILDREN, A SCHOOL THAT OFFERS HOPE AND LOVE
LANCASTER – The sign out front said “private property,’’ as if anyone was going to set foot on the grounds of a dark and desolate mansion that sat far back on a small hill, perched like some cobwebbed haunted house on a Hollywood back lot.
Neighborhood kids remember that when the football they were tossing accidentally landed on the grounds, there would be a look of despair, followed by dares and double-dares to see who had the courage to retrieve the thing. After all, this was where the “mentally retarded” lived.
“In the 1930s and the 1940s what would happen is if a woman went into the hospital and had a baby who was developmentally disabled, the doctor would say, ‘Don’t take him home. Don’t get attached,’ ’’ Charlie Conroy said. “This is where they came.’’
Where they came is to the Doctor Franklin Perkins School on Main Street here, where Conroy moved his family in 1987 when the school he was hired to lead was wheezing red ink, at risk of losing its license, and on the brink of closure. Oh, and his New York City-raised kids were in full revolt.
“I went from living in the Bronx to living across the street from cows,’’ Conroy’s daughter Melissa recalled. “I was determined to be miserable.’’ That lasted two weeks.
I sat with Charlie Conroy this week in the living room of a simple house on the Perkins School property, where he is on his victory lap of sorts, beginning a career-capping sabbatical after relinquishing his CEO chair in September.
To trace the arc of Conroy’s career is to take full measure of Massachusetts’ tortured history toward deinstitutionalization – the official recognition that disabled people should live with their families, attend local schools, be full members of society. Except when they can’t – when that choice may spell danger, or even death.
“I would say we should err on the side of keeping kids safe,’’ Conroy said. “What am I going to argue against? Kids being kept with their families? What am I, some Neanderthal? But what I want is for the kid to be kept alive.’’
Conroy’s been around long enough to see the social-service pendulum swing from reuniting families at all costs to where it appears to be locked today among policy-makers at the state Department of Children and Families.
“DCF’s fundamental purpose is to keep kids safe,” Governor Charlie Baker declared recently.
Those pendulum swings of policy transformed Conroy’s job here as well as his school’s sprawling 120-acre campus, a place of horse barns, red-brick classroom buildings, a pool and fitness center. His staff has grown from 140 to 300, his budget from $2 million to $20 million. When he arrived in 1987, the school served 34 children and 17 adults, all developmentally disabled. All lived on the property.
“There was nothing going in the right direction,’’ said Conroy, 66.
Today, the school serves 150 of the most challenged of children, all mentally ill or mentally disabled kids — some of whom are the victims of unspeakable abuse and neglect. A third of them live here.
And that haunted house? It’s open and airy, a jewel of a place with intricate woodwork and sparkling floors that houses administrative offices.
“We reconstructed our entire program to serve the kind of children we are seeing,’’ said Doug Reid, the school’s chief financial officer, who said Conroy’s mantra has been excellence. The maintenance guys call themselves “Holes ‘R Us,’’ because damaged walls are instantly repaired. Why? “Because home is a place where you trust that people care about you,’’ Reid said.
A recent series of high-profile child abuse cases, like that of Bella Bond, whose body was found on Deer Island after she was allegedly killed by her mother’s boyfriend, makes clear how difficult it is to reconcile the tension between family unity and child safety. That’s a different population of kids, but the importance of keeping kids safe still applies.
“People don’t understand the magnitude of the task,’’ Conroy said. “It’s much more art than it is science.’’
If he ever needed evidence for that he finds it at the school’s assisted living center, where a handful of residents from the dark old days still live at the school on the hill where neighbors are no longer afraid to stop by.