The State Worker

State facility’s closing draws curtain on a California career

Lanterman psychiatric technician Brad Whitehead.
Lanterman psychiatric technician Brad Whitehead. California Association of Psychiatric Technicians

Soon after the last resident leaves Lanterman Developmental Center this month, Brad Whitehead will end nearly 37 years with the state, every day of it as a psychiatric technician at the Pomona facility.

He’s worked with “adults acting 2 to 6 years old,” he said, and others with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism. Some struggled to speak and use the bathroom. Some couldn’t do either. But spending time with them, Whitehead said, he learned coherence from the seemingly incoherent, the rationale of the apparently irrational.

He grew up in Pomona, not far from the 300-acre subject of whispered childhood ignorance.

“We called it ‘the place where the weird people’ lived,” Whitehead recalled during a recent lunchtime interview.

He chuckled at how his view of “the place” changed – and it changed him – after working parts of five decades at a facility that had seemed so mysterious and vaguely menacing.

Whitehead was a laid-off 21-year-old steelworker when he joined the state’s psychiatric technician apprenticeship program.

“I thought I’d work here three to five years and move on,” he said. “Then I realized, ‘Wow, I love what I do.’ ”

It thrilled him to see someone learn to feed themselves. He enjoyed sleuthing that a patient’s anger could be quelled by sticking to a predictable schedule of outside activities. Small wins, big deals.

California opened Pacific Colony in 1927 to detain “feebleminded” people, according to the Department of Developmental Service’s records. It opened with 27 “inmates.”

The name changed to Pacific State Hospital in 1953, then to Frank D. Lanterman State Hospital and Developmental Center in 1979 to honor an assemblyman who championed civil rights and services for people with mental and emotional disabilities. “State Hospital” was eventually dropped from the name, reflecting the view that people living there were just folks with special needs.

Then the state moved away from big developmental centers to smaller, local facilities. Lanterman had 2,000 residents in 1970 and 820 in 1995. In 2010, when the state decided to close Lanterman, it cost $116 million annually to care for 400 residents and pay roughly 1,300 staff. The aging facility also needed a lot of repairs.

Whitehead, a union activist, was on the task force that hashed out the slow-motion shutdown. State officials haven’t yet said what’s next for the property, but if it’s declared surplus it could be sold, leased or exchanged.

“I gave my ideas for keeping it open,” he said. “It just became a cost issue.”

Five residents remained last week. When the last leaves, some staff will stay to button up the facility and to offer a few limited services.

Hundreds have retired or transferred. Whitehead considered working four years until he hits 62.

“But,” he said, “I’m planning to retire. I can’t imagine going somewhere else.”

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043. For more columns, go to sacbee.com/stateworker.

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