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A History of Human Services


Scrolling through this fascinating, year-by-year history of human services in Washington leads to two conclusions: Moral progress is possible, and, in the last 150 years, we've made quite a lot of it.

In some cases, our moral progress has been the result of greater scientific knowledge. Old fears and superstitions about mental illness and other disabilities have been replaced by a better understanding of many of the physical causes and mechanisms of disease. We no longer believe, for instance, that epilepsy is the mark of the devil, or that all mental illness is the result of bad parenting.

In other cases, our progress has been the legacy of courageous and visionary leaders - superintendents who reformed state institutions; citizens who founded hospitals or led charities; advocates who won services for senior citizens and people with disabilities; or elected leaders who mobilized the political will to create programs that bring hope and opportunity to the poor.

Public attitudes have also evolved dramatically in the past 150 years. Today we have a greater appreciation for human diversity, and greater respect for every person's need to achieve his or her highest potential in work and life. Instead of locking people up in institutions (which was what we did for many, many years), Washington state now leads the nation in helping both seniors and people with disabilities live as independently as possible, for as long as possible.

We haven't changed human nature, or abolished suffering. And some things - like the argument that started in 1854 about whether county or state government should pay for human services - may truly go on forever. But we hope that as you browse through this document, you will be inspired, as we are, by the clear evidence that while we will never be perfect, we can and do make progress.

Like so many people who came before us, we can make a positive difference in the lives of the people we serve. And if we keep pushing the agenda of progress and improvement, we can make an even bigger difference in the quality and nature of the society we create in the century we have just begun.

Timeline at a glance

| 1854 | 1855 | 1862 | 1871 | 1891 | 1892 |1901 | 1904 |
| 1907 | 1913 | 1914 | 1931 | 1933 | 1939 | 1951 | 1955 |
| 1957 | 1965 | 1968 | 1970 | 1973 | 1974 | 1975 | 1976 |
| 1978 | 1979 | 1980 | 1982 | 1984 | 1987 | 1996 | 1997 |

Territorial Legislature passes "An Act Relating to the Support of the Poor"

One year after Washington became a territory, the legislature passed "An Act Relating to the Support of the Poor," which delegated to county governments "entire and exclusive superintendence" over "every poor person who shall be unable to earn a livelihood in consequence of bodily infirmity, idiocy, lunacy or other cause." The Act noted that relatives had primary responsibility for people in need, and granted county governments the right to fine them for non-support. Counties were also authorized to build workhouses, or contract out for care of adults, and to apprentice out pauper children.

Counties were also expected to pay for the care of the poor; no state funds were dedicated to this purpose.

In King County (which then had a population of 170 non-Indians) appealed to the state for reimbursement for the care of a destitute sailor found wandering and disoriented on a beach near Seattle, but the state legislature declined to pay.

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State takes responsibility for care of mentally ill; contracts out for services, and is very delinquent in its payments

Under the leadership of Territorial Governor William Pickering, state government took responsibility for the care of the mentally ill. Lacking funds to build a hospital, the state contracted for the care of the mentally ill with the Sisters of Charity (now the Sisters of Providence), but, because of lack of funds, it was 19 months before the Sisters began to receive payment.

Washington's first "insane asylum" is established

Washington Territory purchased an abandoned army post, Fort Steilacoom, and converted the barracks into a permanent "asylum for the insane," and contracted out for the care of the patients. In 1875, complaints about brutality and poor living conditions led to the territorial government taking direct control, and legislative approval of its director.

During its early history, Western State Hospital (and its "twin," Eastern State Hospital - established in 1891) suffered from overcrowding and successive waves of criticism for inadequate treatment and care of its many patients. To some degree, overcrowding was the result of lack of alternatives; there were often complaints that the elderly and disabled ended up in these hospitals simply because there was nowhere else to send them, and because counties had an economic incentive to transfer the costs of their care to the state.

A new state institution to reform "depraved and vicious youth" opens

Two years after Washington became a state, the State Training School for male juvenile offenders opened in Chehalis to reform "depraved and vicious youth." By 1911, it was already overcrowded, and an investigative committee found that "fresh fruit, even an apple, was a luxury" for the inmates, who also rarely had milk, meat or eggs. Severe corporal punishment was the norm. Aside from beatings, solitary confinement and a diet of bread and water were used; so was a "face box," which was "a coffin-like box into which a minor was placed with a leather collar to hold the face in place. A padlocked door at face level was only opened during meals. When the door was closed, there were three holes to provide for sight and ventilation."

The girls' dormitory was in a wooden building with no fire escapes. Girls were locked in the dormitory without any supervision from 8 p.m. until 6:30 a.m. In order to ensure that girls and boys did not mix, girls were never allowed to go outdoors.

A second mental hospital is established

A second mental hospital, Eastern State Hospital, opened at Medical Lake, near Spokane. It was intended to relieve severe overcrowding at Western State Hospital in Steilacoom, and to satisfy demands from eastern Washington legislators for a state charitable institution east of the Cascades.

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State opens schools for "defective youth" and "feeble-minded youth" in Vancouver; second institution for more severely mentally retarded youth added in 1905

The state opened a school for what were then described as "defective youth" (deaf or blind children) in Vancouver. A separate school was opened for children with mild mental retardation. This school quickly became overcrowded and a long waiting list developed. A second school for children with more severe mental retardation was opened in 1905 in Medical Lake, adjacent to Eastern State Hospital. This school, called the State Institution for the Feeble Minded, cared for young people up to the age of 21, but there was no facility to care for them as adults.

Religious leader organizes first group to coordinate private charity

D. C. Garrett, pastor of Trinity Church in Seattle, established the Bureau of Associated Charities because there were "too many people begging on city streets" and too many "agency tramps" who went from one charity to another, thus taking advantage of private charities. The Bureau established a central record-keeping system and a mechanism for investigating the morals and lifestyles of those who sought assistance.

State Board of Control formed to oversee state institutions

The growing number of state institutions led to the creation of a central board to oversee them. This board was the earliest forerunner of today's Department of Social and Health Services.

Private and church-sponsored charities create state coalition

The first Washington Conference of Charities and Corrections was held at Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle. The meeting was billed as "A public conference for the purpose of discussing the problems of caring for our weaker citizens in state and county institutions and by means of private philanthropy, and for encouraging remedial legislation." This organization was later renamed the Washington State Conference of Social Work.

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Children's Orthopedic Hospital founded

Seattle women organized and raised funds to create the Children's Orthopedic Hospital, which, by 1937, had served 26,000 children without regard to their parents' ability to pay.

Legislation to incarcerate mentally retarded up to age 50 approved

The state legislature passed a law specifying that the state will care for mentally retarded people up to the age of 50. It had previously taken responsibility only for children. This measure - and the 50-year age limit - were intended to ensure that mentally retarded people were celibate by confining them to institutions during what were presumed to be their child-bearing or sexually active years. In 1921, a law was passed authorizing sterilization of the mentally retarded. Many were sterilized, but even then it was feared that if they were not institutionalized, they would spread sexually-transmitted diseases.

"Mothers' Pensions" provided by state legislature

The state legislature passed the "Mother's Pension Law" to provide relief for women whose husbands had died, deserted them, or were inmates in state prisons or mental hospitals.

Depression causes new wave of suffering

Pelagius Williams, president of the 1931 Washington State Conference of Social Work, spoke of the devastating impact of the vast unemployment caused by the depression. He described "a picture of lowered living standards - of men and women and little children going without sufficient food and without suitable clothing for the protection of their health in winter; of sickness resulting from lowered resistance due to lack of proper food and clothing; of men grown weary and discouraged from the vain search, month after month, for employment ... of men deserting in the hope that their families may receive a mother's pension ... of widespread and growing unrest, with all the danger that it carries for sound family and community life; of an increasing number of suicides resulting from worry and despair."

By 1935, half of Washington's population had received some form of government assistance.

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Charles Ernst appointed to lead State Emergency Relief Administration

Washington's democratic governor, Clarence Martin, appointed the Harvard-educated, Republican Charles Ernst to lead Washington state's depression relief efforts. Ernst helped Washington become a model of timely, professional, and efficient development of social services. Ernst was quick to create the infrastructure necessary to take advantage of federal funding of new programs and benefits provided by the Roosevelt Administration.

University of Washington Graduate School of Social Work founded

Four-year-old girl becomes so desperate for food that she eats poisonous weeds and dies

Angeline D'Ambrose's father was a shoemaker who had been out of work for over a year. The family had not had anything to eat for two days. Desperately hungry, little Angeline ate poisonous weeds in her back yard and died.

New Superintendent of School for Retarded brings humane reforms to neglected institution

The Custodial School (previously named the State Institution for the Feeble Minded), which had suffered from overcrowding and neglect, turned over a new leaf under the leadership of Charles A. Parker, a former Tacoma elementary school principal. He raised professional standards, started sports teams, a music program, and Scout troops. He also helped persuade the legislature to build two additional wards and a gymnasium.

Federal Social Security Act creates new federal role in caring for elderly, unemployed, and other people in need

The Social Security Act - a sweeping federal law - is best known for creating a national system of old age insurance financed by taxes on wages and payrolls. But it did much, much more: it created a federal/state system of unemployment insurance, provided federal matching funds to states for the care of mothers and children, and created federal public health services.

Children's Benevolent League established to advocate for mentally retarded children

James F. Oakley and other parents and relatives of developmentally disabled children banded together to form the Children's Benevolent League. This organization later became the Washington Association for Retarded Children/Citizens, and was instrumental in the establishment of the National Association for Retarded Citizens.

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Western State Custodial School opens in Buckley

The Western State Custodial School, authorized by the legislature in 1937, was established to relieve overcrowding in the Custodial School in Medical Lake. These institutions served mentally retarded children and youth.

Nursing home licensing law enacted

A fire in an Aberdeen nursing home took the lives of 27 residents. The public outcry over this tragedy resulted in the passage of laws requiring nursing homes to be licensed.

Washington creates job training programs for welfare recipients

Washington was recognized as a national leader for a program begun in 1955 that trained able-bodied welfare recipients for jobs.

Garrett Heyns appointed as Director of Institutions

After a nine-month, national search, Governor Rosellini appointed Garret Heyns, the former head of Michigan's Department of Corrections, as Director of Institutions. For the first time ever, Heyns won complete accreditation of Washington state's three mental hospitals. He also expanded programs for the mentally retarded.

Medicare and Medicaid created by U. S. Congress

Health care services for the elderly and poor were provided by the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid as a part of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" agenda.

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Task force appointed by Governor Dan Evans recommends consolidation of social services

Three major benefits to consolidation of social services were identified in the task force's recommendations: improved capability of delivering coordinated services to people with multiple needs; better internal coordination; and better capacity to deal with the federal government.

Department of Social and Health Services created to unify social services

Governor Evans won passage of legislation to "unify the related social and health services of state government" by combining the Departments of Health, Institutions, Corrections, Public Assistance, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Veterans' Rehabilitation Council. Over the following twenty years, the legislature removed veteran's

Northern State Hospital closes

Advances in the treatment of mental illness, coupled with greater public understanding and reduced fear of the mentally ill, led to greater opportunities for people with mental illnesses to remain in their communities and families. Washington's mental hospitals, which had long suffered from overcrowding, were finally able to reduce their populations. This led to the closure of Northern State Hospital.

Federal Supplemental Security Income Program established to aid aged, blind, and people with long-term disabilities

The federal government took on more responsibility for helping people in need by creating the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which provides monthly checks to people who are unable to work because of age or disability. Many of these people had previously been supported by grants from the state. The Department of Social and Health Services helps people apply for SSI.

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Alcoholism treatment act passes legislature; decriminalizes public intoxication

Washington was the first state to pass a uniform alcoholism treatment act. The law decriminalized public intoxication, and established a continuum of treatment for alcohol addiction.

Senior Citizens Act passes legislature

The Senior Citizens Services Act was passed by the Washington State Legislature to help people remain independent in their own homes for as long as possible. Some federal funds were involved, but Washington was the first state in the country to devote state dollars to home-based services for the elderly.

Congress passes Indian Child Welfare Act

After many years of federal policies that worked against the preservation of native cultures, the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act gave tribes more control over foster care placement and adoption of Indian children.

Nursing home patient abuse reporting law passed

A complaint reporting system for abuse of nursing home patients was created, and a process for investigating complaints within 24 hours was established.

Federal Refugee Act expands services to new immigrants

The Federal Refugee Act expanded the program of services established to resettle refugees from Southeast Asia who came to this country in the wake of the war in Vietnam. The act established that these services would be available to refugees from all countries. In Washington state, DSHS was designated as the single state agency responsible for the program.

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Federal budget cuts and recession combine to reduce social service spending

Over 20 months, the DSHS budget was cut by more than $600 million - a result of reductions in federal spending, and a steep, recession-related decline in state revenues.

Adult Protective Services established

The Washington State Legislature passed the "Elder Abuse Act," which empowered DSHS to intervene on behalf of abused elders and other vulnerable adults.

Omnibus AIDS Act defines state response to deadly epidemic

The Washington State Legislature created and funded a new service delivery system, patterned on the Aging Network, for people with AIDS.

Federal welfare reform law passes

After many years of debate, the federal government ends welfare as an entitlement. The new law establishes a five-year lifetime limit for collecting welfare benefits. The law also freezes federal spending on welfare at 1996 levels, and gives the money to states as a block grant. This means that if the state's welfare caseloads are reduced, they can use the money saved to invest in more services to help people get jobs, keep jobs, and move up a career ladder.

Washington's WorkFirst program created

All states were required to change their welfare programs to bring them into line with the new federal law. Under the leadership of Governor Locke, Washington created a new system whose goal was to reduce poverty - not merely to reduce the welfare rolls. WorkFirst requires that all those who are able to work get jobs. It also builds an extensive system of supports that guarantees that people who work will be better off. The promise of WorkFirst is "a job, a better job, a better life."

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  • A Shared Experience - A History of Washington State's Human Services from Territorial Days to the Present, by Russell Hollander, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, St. Martin's College, Olympia, Washington, and Michael K. Green, Ph.D., Department of History, Eastern Washington University. This publication was sponsored by Sisters of Providence, the Washington State Hospital Association, DSHS, and the Washington Commission for the Humanities and published for the state centennial in 1989.
  • Chronology of Long-Term Care (1946-2000), by Ken Cameron, Aging and Adult Services Administration, DSHS