Shuttered girls reformatory recalls horror, haven
October 24, 2009
BELOIT, Kan. (AP) – Many were broken, many were saved here.
Beloit’s name became synonymous with its girls’ reformatory, one of the longest-operating in the country, which for more than a century mirrored the most enlightened reforms but also the cruelest horrors of such places. Now, at its closing, residents and staff members are wrestling with the contradictions.
Beloit was where “bad girls” were sent: That’s what Diane Roles had heard as a child. A friend’s sister had gone there.
Growing up in the 1960s, Roles endured a seriously dysfunctional family – a chronically violent father and a fearful mother. People didn’t talk much about child abuse then, and young Diane’s solution was to run away from home to escape beatings.
Once, she said, her father kicked her with his steel-toed boot, leaving her jaw swollen. Another time, her bruised legs prompted a girlfriend’s mother and a neighbor to call her family. But nothing changed.
“I got to the place where I didn’t even cry anymore,” she said. “The more they hit me, the more I laughed.”
Her older sister complained to their mother that she had been molested. Roles said her mother slapped the sister, saying, “What am I supposed to do?”
The offense that landed Roles in the juvenile court system was taking her brother’s car for a joy ride. After fleeing a foster home, she was offered placement in a “trade school,” and she grabbed it.
It wasn’t until the frightened 13-year-old was riding across the wind-swept prairie of rural north-central Kansas that it dawned on her the school was Beloit. “I mean to tell you my heart dropped clear down to my toes,” she said.
But looking back now, she sees it differently. “Going to Beloit was a safe haven for me,” she said. “Basically, I was an abused kid. Back in them days they didn’t do anything. They shook their heads.”
There is no barbed wire – no fence at all – surrounding the complex of limestone and brick buildings that came to be known as Beloit Juvenile Correctional Facility. Across the street is the high school for the shrinking, agricultural town of 3,600. Its two-block long downtown, filled with charming century-old buildings, is less than a mile away.
The institution, right down to its rural setting, is typical of the ones that began opening in the middle part of the 19th century as rehabilitation-focused reformers sought to end the practice of housing juveniles alongside adults in deplorable conditions.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a suffragist group that had fought for prohibition, lobbied for the girls’ facility in Kansas, soliciting donations of land and money and operating it for its first couple of years before the state took it over in 1890. As was common at the time, girls as young as 8 spent long days toiling in the gardens and caring for the animals that supplied their food. For a time, girls were even indentured to farm families.
But with the high-minded ideals of the reformers, there was a dark side as well, explained Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council for Juvenile Correctional Administrators, in Braintree, Mass.
“These kids were an eyesore for the upper classes of society,” he said. “The solution wasn’t to change the conditions they were growing up in, the poverty and lack of parental supervision. The view was to get them out of sight. Then people forgot they were there, and abuses crept into the system.”
Abuses? Under some administrations, girls were punished with huge doses of vomit- and diarrhea-inducing castor oil,humiliated with forced hair clipping. In the darkest period, dozens underwent involuntary sterilizations.
“It totally infuriates me,” said Katrina Pollet, pausing at a box of yellowed photos from years gone by as staff sorted and packed up late this summer. The last superintendent, she’s passionate about helping the girls who’ve left Beloit for good.
“It’s so important to me because I could have easily been here,” said Pollet, who was herself once a pregnant 16-year-old high-school dropout.
As school records, some in musty leather-bound books, were sorted and stored, the mundane details they contain sketched life at Beloit and the shifting attitudes it reflected.
From the 1930s, a file for one girl described her as “incorrigible” and noted she “associated with Mexican men” and “became intoxicated at dances.”
The offense for another young charge was listed as being “immoral (with father).” Later in the record, it shows the girl was taken for removal of venereal warts. It was common practice for much of the facility’s history to lock up young abuse victims rather than their abusers.
Both girls spent about four years at Beloit.
All the records detail whether the girls had attended Sunday school. “Yes” is the answer for most.
When the reformatory was founded, girls “were really viewed in our society much more as property,” said J. Russell Jennings, commissioner of the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority. “And the expectation for behavior of girls and what occurred with them when they didn’t meet those expectations really provided an open door for young girls to be institutionalized for non-crime events. Not even running away but just kind of being a pain in the neck.”
The treatment they received varied, as it was not uncommon in the early days for entire staffs to change after elections. Some administrations taught the girls to play musical instruments and barred corporal punishment, while others relied on draconian forms of discipline.
The most infamous superintendent was Lula Coyner, whose cruelty caused the girls to march to the sheriff’s office and demand an investigation.
In 1935 and 1936, Coyner undertook a campaign of forced sterilization after becoming enamored with an international movement known as eugenics, a philosophy also popular among the Nazis that sought to prevent those deemed mentally disabled or otherwise genetically inferior from having children.
During her tenure, 62 girls – almost half of her charges – were transported about 175 miles away to the Women’s Prison Hospital in Lansing to have their fallopian tubes removed.
The reason: Coyner wrote in a 1936 report that girls who “asked to be sterilized” had “serious physical or family handicaps,” such as venereal diseases, insanity, epilepsy and illegitimacy. She later defended her action, writing that it was “the finest service to society the Girls’ Industrial School has ever contributed.”
A torrent of negative news stories presented it differently, and Coyner’s replacement, Blanche Peterson, told a reporter girls lived in terror of the operations, which were performed for “absurd” reasons.
Twenty-two recommended sterilizations, pending when Coyner left, were never carried out.
The harsh treatment had been swept away by the time Diane Roles arrived. Beloit became a training ground for workers from the Topeka-based Menninger Clinic, which became known internationally for humanizing treatment of the mentally ill.
The therapy provided a means for the girls to finally talk openly about the abuse many of them had experienced. There was usually at least one young murderess at Beloit, generally sent there for killing an abuser. But runaways like Roles were much more common.
Roles met often with staff to discuss her situation, but she was insistent on one point: “I didn’t even want to discuss going home.”
Others felt the same. One young woman who arrived a decade later said she and her sister had suffered incessant sexual abuse at home, but no one believed them.
“I wasn’t a criminal,” said the 50-year-old now living in Fayetteville, Ark., who asked to be identified by her maiden name, Kathy Mounce. “I wasn’t really running to something. I was running from something.”
She remembers Beloit as a safe place, where she could sleep at night without being bothered.
“I will always believe that because of Beloit and the staff, I am where I am today,” said the mother of three who has been married 32 years, worked as a radiology clerk at a hospital and even counseled sexual abuse victims. “They saved the lives of unwanted children.”
Roles recalls softball games with the staff and cooking meals with her housemates. The school had a cosmetology program, and Roles chose to receive training as a nurse’s aide. Well-behaved girls even were permitted to have jobs in town.
Later, girls even briefly participated in mixers with boys from a Topeka facility, a practice that ended when one girl became pregnant.
The environment began to change because of a federal law passed in the mid-1970s that sought to end the incarceration of status offenders – those whose offenses wouldn’t be a crime if committed by an adult. The practice wasn’t fully eliminated in Kansas until 1983. Over the past decade, more low-level offenders were placed in less-expensive and, research suggests, more appropriate community-based programs.
The Beloit facility averaged just 21 girls in the just-ended 2009 fiscal year, down from 103 in 1999; because of the low numbers, the state was spending an average of $200,000 a year on each girl. In the midst of a deep recession that has caused massive budget cuts in Kansas, like most other places, the expenses for Beloit became just too high. After more than 120 years, it closed in August.
“We don’t raise orphans and we don’t raise wayward youth and incorrigible youth at state institutions anymore,” said Jennings, the juvenile justice commissioner. “We reserve those institutions only for the most serious offenders to ensure public safety. It really reflects a system that is maturing and it’s becoming more aligned with current research on how we can be most effective with adolescent behaviors.”
Although the reasons for the closure were clear, residents and staff became misty-eyed when they talked about the decision to transfer Beloit’s remaining occupants to unused space at a Topeka facility that previously housed just young male offenders.
Bobbie Stillman, who called Beloit home until the end, said the announcement that the facility was closing caused her to hyperventilate and sent her to her room, feeling “overwhelmed and let down.”
Knowing the girls were worried, staff members gave Stillman and the others teddy bears before their move, and the girls cuddle the bears as they watch television and sleep.
Over the years, staff members had raised money to buy the girls Christmas presents. Some corresponded with their former charges, following them as they pursued careers in nursing, social work and criminal justice. Few became adult offenders.
Roles, who married, had three children and worked as a mental health aide, stayed in touch with one of her housemothers and with former superintendent Dennis Shumate.
“They were great role models,” she said. “They were like family.”