Chronicles from Chattahoochee

I am happy to introduce a new page to our Chattahoochee section – Chronicles from Chattahoochee – real stories from people who either trained or worked at the institution. While these stories didn’t make it into the first edition of Out of Mind, Out of Sight becaused I learned of them after publication, they give true insight into the workings of the institution and the relationships between staff and patients.

If you have a story about Chattahoochee you’d like to have published here, please contact me at info@sallyjling.com.  You may still use the comment area to post your thoughts as well.


Story #1: Mrs. Smith

I was a student working on my Masters Degree in Social Work and was assigned to the State Hospital at Chattahoochee as a field placement.  I worked there for six months during the 1960s.  I found the staff and the aides co-operative and non-confrontational but disinterested in interacting with “us students.”

The patients, however, were intensely interested.  Social Services personnel were “THE WAY OUT.”  If a patient was being considered for release back to their community, they would get a visit from a hospital Social Worker and the wheels would begin to turn. As a result, there was no resistance if I asked a patient if they wanted to talk to me. I’d look at my schedule, note that I had a free hour after a 9 AM meeting. I’d go to the ward and say, “Mrs. Smith, I had some time tomorrow morning,  Would you like to talk to me, say around 10 AM?”

The next morning Mrs. Smith would be in the waiting room, dressed in her very best clothing, hair combed, face scrubbed, huge smile on her face at 8:01 AM. Any one called to the Social Worker’s office had a shot at getting home.  This was more important to Mrs. Smith than her wedding date, her graduation from high school, the birth of her first child.  She was ready, willing and able to sit for two hours if that’s what it took to talk to the Social Worker.

The hospital had coffee available for the staff, and I could usually grab a cup for a patient, so many of my 10AM meetings took place at 8:02….and as one voice the patients always thanked me, profusely, for the cup of REAL coffee…. Apparently the ward coffee was low on coffee but had lots of water.

Mrs. Smith found the hospital food impossible.  It was bland, served barely warm, and was starchy and overcooked.  She ate very little and was always hungry.  I had a candy bar on my desk and she couldn’t take her eyes off of it.  I asked her if she liked chocolate and she almost leapt from her chair.  From that point on we had all of our conferences at 8:02  AM and I always had a cup of coffee and a doughnut or a cruller for her, and she left my office with a candy bar in her pocket.

There is a funny side story to the Mrs. Smith saga (that wasn’t her real name, but this is her real story.)  She had entered the hospital in a state of total confusion, hallucinations, paranoid ideation, a total collapse of her parenting and personal hygiene skills.  Her children, young teenagers,  had been removed and placed in foster care.

Once Mrs. Smith was medicated appropriately her symptoms disappeared and she was really quite intelligent and lucid.  She found being in the hospital absurd.  So my case plan was to try to get her back home, with supervision by the local Children and Family Services agency and her family doctor.

She was a widow with a good financial base.  Her husband had been in the military and had died in combat.  He had made arrangements for the financial support of his wife and his children (insurance policies, military pension) if anything should happen to him.  Mrs. Smith could afford to live in her home community and she sorely missed her children.

The strongest resistance I had in implementing the release plan was from Children and Family Services. They had been using Mrs. Smith’s money to support her children in care and did not want to get busy on finding a suitable rental for Mrs. Smith, and helping to move the children back home. They realized that their work with the family would be increased.  As it was, they could handle the children’s care with a monthly visit to the foster home.  We, the hospital, were now asking them to get busy and reunite the family and offer in home supervision.

I won. Mrs. Smith went home, but it was not an easy battle and by happenstance, when I completed my field placement, got my Masters Degree and arrived at my new job, as a county supervisor of Children’s Services, I found myself in Mrs. Smith’s county, and responsible for her ongoing care.  Payback is Hell.

The Smith case took three times the effort of any of our other foster care/family cases.  It occupied  most of the time of one of our staff members. Mrs. Smith had medical issues, and we had to help her stick with her medication. The teen age children resented that their mother had been “so weird” prior to her admission to the hospital and they didn’t really trust her to “stay well.” Their behavior towards her was a little more aggressive than a typical teen….plus they had liked their foster mother and she liked them.  She wanted to stay involved. That made for some discomfort for Mrs. Smith.

Balancing the two homes was difficult. The oldest teen was unhappy. He wanted to quit school. His grades were dropping. There was some pressure from the foster parent to “let him come back to her” so that he would graduate. The children played one system against the other. They reported every issue they had with their mother to their worker, to their old foster parent, to their school teachers, to the school guidance counselor.  The worker had to mediate between the children and their mother, between Mrs. Smith and the foster parent, between Mrs. Smith and her doctor.

The doctor seemed to take oversight of her medication (making sure her prescription was filled regularly, in her hands and being taken properly) very lightly.  He saw his job as issuing the prescription.  He often forgot to renew the medication on time and he took no responsibility for assuring that Mrs. Smith was taking it as directed.

Without medication we were facing the possibility of a return to deterioration into full blown schizophrenia. With proper medication, Mrs. Smith was  a functioning, caring, intelligent adult. But supervision of  an adult’s medication was not something that most Children’s Services workers considered part of their job.

I moved on within the agency and was not there for the final years of the case. To the best of my knowledge Mrs. Smith remained out of the hospital and the youngest child made it through high school, but the case did give me a real understanding of the process of working with a patient at Chattahoochee – where coffee and a cruller would get you wonderful co-operation and working with a patient in the community – where things were a little more complex.

LS, retired


Story #2: The Babies

Back in the 60s, the State of Florida was justifiably proud of its services to the mentally retarded.  Mentally handicapped individuals were tested and were assigned to facilities designed to house them humanely.

There was a facility in Orlando Florida which housed profoundly retarded individuals, individuals unable to walk, or talk, unable to feed themselves or to participate in any educational or vocational training. The Orlando facility was large, airy, divided into units which could be managed by the nursing staff and aides.   Every client received daily attention and care, stimulation and an opportunity to interact with staff.

There was a facility in Ocala which was designed for those individuals with higher intellectual levels.  This facility featured dormitories, in a park like setting, with dining halls where clients could have meals with friends and people from other buildings.  There was an emphasis on vocational and educational training, recreation, entertainment. Despite the Excellent facilities for retarded clients, not all mentally disabled Floridians ended up in the Sunland Centers.

I was a student, on field placement at the mental hospital in Chattahoochee when three individuals were admitted. The first was a mother and daughter, both severely retarded. The daughter, age fourteen, was pregnant.  Her mother was a prostitute and she had prostituted her daughter until the child became pregnant.

 Their home community had looked the other way when it was just the mother standing on the street corner but when the daughter was standing next to her mother and the daughter was obviously pregnant, the community intervened.  The local court ordered mother and child into the state mental hospital, pending the birth of the baby.

 That was not a bad choice.  The Sunland Centers were not set up as  hospitals.  I doubt that they had an obstetrical ward or delivery room facilities.  Chattahoochee was a hospital, with a medical model.  It was staffed by physicians and nurses, in addition to aides and attendants.

The third patient admitted on that day was an attractive, apparently intelligent woman, probably in her late teens or early twenties.  She arrived in a Sheriff’s car, in handcuffs.  She was also quite obviously pregnant.

I was not assigned to work with the older woman but was asked to work with the retarded fourteen year old girl.  I was to help her understand what was happening to her, what would be coming, how we would help her. She had no idea what was going on.  She did not understand pregnancy.  She had no idea how it had happened.  She did understand that she had been with men but there was no connection in her mind between that activity and her sudden weight gain.  Her mother had told her what to do, had made all the arrangements, and had collected all of the money she earned.   The child bore no resentment towards her mother, had no understanding that what had happened was wrong.

I saw the youngster three times a week at first.  I used hard candies and an occasional carton of chocolate milk to get her to focus on me and our discussions.  I had her repeat back to me what we had talked about.  Her efforts reflected that I was making little or no progress but that she enjoyed the attention and the candy.

During the final weeks before delivery I saw her daily and helped her with bending and stretching and strengthening exercises that the nurses said might help her with delivery. The baby was born.  I went to see it.  It was a tiny little girl, pale, unresponsive, almost limp. She lay quietly there, not yet alive or ready to join the world.

It wasn’t long before my client, her mother and the infant girl were released from Chattahoochee and sent to the Sunland Centers.  I would imagine that the mother and grandmother went to Ocala.  The infant would have gone to the Orlando Center.

In the next crib was the other patient’s newborn infant.  He had been born the same night. This was a healthy, robust, energetic boy.  He waved his balled fists like a prize fighter warming up for the first round.  He kicked his feet, moved his head back and forth on the crib sheet. The little boy was also released soon after birth.  He was placed in foster care in his home county.  His mother was released and she quickly disappeared.

 When I graduated and went back to my job with Children’s Services, I was assigned to a supervisor’s position and discovered the little Chattahoochee boy in a foster home in my new county. He was a beautiful, healthy, intelligent toddler.  His foster parents adored him.  They knew that he had been born at the mental hospital but I was able to assure them that their mother had received no medication nor any therapy which would have affected him.

 As part of our role with the child, I received a copy of the court documents committing his mother to Chattahoochee.  It turned out that her parents were prominent, very conservative, wealthy, business owners and that she, the daughter, had been rebellious and defiant as a youngster and as a teen. She had run away from home during her senior year in high school and had returned some months later, pregnant, unmarried, and still defiant.  When the grandparents discovered that the baby had been fathered by a full blooded Indian they were horrified.

They approached the county judge and got the mother forcibly committed to Chattahoochee.  She was handcuffed and placed in a Sheriff’s car for transport.  She was to be restrained by the hospital, if necessary, for her own protection.  And she was not to be released until the baby was born and removed from her care.

Once the child was in foster care we never heard from the birth mother.  The grandparents never inquired about nor visited the little boy.  After a period of time the child was committed to our department for purposes of adoption and his adoring foster parents adopted him.

I received reports from them at intervals even after I had left that county and that position.  He did well in school, was well liked and popular in the community.  He finished high school, entered the military service and did well there, rising quickly up the ranks.

One doesn’t usually think of a mental hospital as a maternity home for unwed mothers, but on this occasion Chattahoochee served as one, and did an excellent job, given the circumstances.

 LS, retired


Story #3: Behind the Veil

People still allege terrible abuse and mistreatment.  My little stories may hit a sore spot amidst all the accusations of beatings and rapes.

I saw NO abuse at Chattahoochee.  Mrs. “Smith” reported no abuse, no mistreatment.  Her biggest criticism was the food and her complaints mirrored my own when I was hospitalized for surgery on my arthritic knees–luke warm food, in large quantities, over cooked or held too long in steam trays.  Hospital kitchens cannot hold a candle to Burger King or Wendys, much less a local family diner back home.

 In the Back Ward the attendants were not abusive, they were detached. They spoke kindly to the patients, repeating the same phrases again and again….”Don’t do that Mrs. Johnson.  Use the water coming from the pipe, not the water in the trough.”  “Mrs. Brown, don’t push Mrs. Jones.  That is her favorite bench.  You sit over here by me.”

There was no out welling of affection or warmth, no jovial joshing or teasing, but they were there and they spoke to the patients calmly and without rancor. The patients did not respond, often gave no recognition that they had heard their name….but no one flinched or appeared to be afraid.

 On Mrs. Smith’s ward she had some minor trouble with a patient who wanted to sleep in Mrs. Smith’s bed.  Every night she would report to the bed and tell Mrs. Smith to get up.  “This is MY bed” she’d intone. An Aide would come to her side, gently guide her away to her assigned bed and watch while she got into it and seemed to be settled.

 Mrs. Smith told me “Sometimes that works.  Other times she is back again in an hour.  I suggested that I would give her ‘my bed’ and sleep somewhere else” but the Aide said “She would just find someone else to bother.  At least now I know where she is going and I can usually intercept her before she bothers you.”

 The little 14 year old girl was a difficult child.  She tended to want physical contact, hugging you spontaneously, hard, and sometimes snuggling her head into your breasts aggressively.  You had to be kind but firm, putting her at arms length, giving her a gentle squeeze, telling her that you loved her, too, but hard hugs hurt.  She needed to ask for a hug and be gentle when it was given. It was like talking to a rock, but even after almost four months I saw NO bruises or marks on her face, her arms, or her body.  The Aides were not being rough with her.

 Granted, I was never in the mens’ wards nor privy to any disciplinary actions against staff members, but the Chattahoochee I knew was a huge hospital filled with all levels of society, all degrees of madness.

 I saw no brutality.

 LS, retired

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