Inside the State Hospital
A new leader and team may help set the Delaware Psychiatric Center back on track. But with a history of old troubles and current financial woes, the job will be a big one.
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In the person-first, politically correct language of today, the teenage boy was “a person with an intellectual disability.”
He desperately wanted to join 11-year-old Rita Mariani and the other kids who hung out together in Brookdale Farms near Delcastle Park.
At first he was known as “Mike on the red bike.” Soon though, he was being called names such as “retard” and “dummy.”
More than 40 years later, Rita Landgraf recalls being caught up in the pack mentality, joining in the jokes and pranks her friends played on Mike, though she felt bad about her behavior.
“I can still remember how awfully we treated him,” she says. “We made fun of him. We set him up for things that were totally inappropriate. Finally, after about a week, he decided that he had had enough and he didn’t want to hang out with us. And I can remember as he rode away, I saw that he was crying.”
The episode set her on a career path. “It has left a scar in me,” says Landgraf, “but I turned that scar into a purpose in my life, to advocate for individuals with disabilities and vulnerable populations and to be more inclusive of diversity. I consider that a gift. Mike gave me a gift.”
She has spent a lifetime returning that gift, and she now occupies the ideal bully pulpit from which to achieve and perhaps exceed her most ambitious goals. She is the new secretary of Delaware Health and Social Services.
So much for the good news. The bad news: Her job includes responsibility for the Delaware Psychiatric Center.
Over the past several years, the center has been a veritable case study in all that can go wrong in a psychiatric hospital. Under the watchful eye of The News Journal—which regularly notes that it “published more than 100 stories” in 2007 alone about problems there—the hospital has spawned allegations of rape, assault and other forms of patient abuse, as well as retaliation against staff members who reported some incidents.
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