My mother tells a story about a phone call she’ll never forget. It was the summer of 1966. She was several months pregnant with her first child (me), biding her time by the pool of the Phoenix apartment complex where she and my dad were living. Her due date wasn’t till November, but they’d already picked out both boy and girl names.
She answered the phone.
“Mrs. Silverman?” a voice asked.
“Yes,” my mother answered.
“This is the Arizona Children’s Colony. We wanted to let you know that a space has opened up for your son David.”
The Arizona Children’s Colony was an institution for children with intellectual disabilities, or, as they were known then, the mentally retarded. My mother mumbled something about a mistake and got off the phone as quickly as she could.
Her boy name was David.
Because of that story, since I was a little kid I’ve had a vision of that place, the Arizona Children’s Colony. But when my younger daughter, Sophie, was born with Down syndrome in 2003, it didn’t occur to me that such places still existed. That’s not how things are done anymore. Not always. Not exactly.
The Arizona Children’s Colony opened in 1952, just outside Coolidge, one town over from Florence, where the state prison is located. It’s about an hour south of Phoenix. But 60-some years ago, with slower cars and unpaved roads, it must have been a real excursion to get there.
Today, the place has been renamed the Arizona Training Program, even though no real training goes on — not that I know of. It’s still an institution, the only one in the state and one of the last in the country; it’s run with a combination of state and federal dollars. And while institutions started out as a cheap way to warehouse some of society’s most vulnerable, today it costs a lot to house a person at the Arizona Training Program. That’s mainly because no new residents have moved in for many years. It’s also because the quality of care improved, after the state was sued over poor conditions decades ago. For a long time, state leaders and disability-rights activists have fought to close ATP, saying that it’s too expensive and residents should be in small group homes closer to family members, but in many cases it’s those family members (the ones who are left, anyway) who have fought to keep the place open.
Something keeps pulling me to Coolidge. Maybe it’s David Silverman (I never was able to track him down, although I’ve asked), maybe it’s because lots of people just like my daughter Sophie lived there and a few still do. When I began reporting on it in January, there were 83 residents. The last time I checked, the number was 82. I guess I feel this odd need to bear witness to this institution, which is dying with its residents.
That is what led me to Faye Arrington. She is a mother of five. Her son Darryl is the last surviving original resident of the Arizona Training Program. He and his twin brother, Dorryl (who passed away a few years ago), both diagnosed with cerebral palsy, were placed at the facility at the age of three, on the day it opened, March 19, 1952. Several years later, they were joined by their younger sister, Darla Kay, who has microcephaly. Faye has two other children, her oldest and youngest, who do not have developmental disabilities.
Faye is 88, a gorgeous woman with high cheekbones and gray hair swept up off her face, a casual look I’ve spent hours trying to achieve with no success. When I met her, I was nervous — and also full of judgment. I felt self-righteous as I pulled up to Faye’s modest home in a quiet neighborhood in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix, thinking as always about my Sophie “to do” list — questions for teachers, doctors, the respite provider, plans for summer — and wondering what it would feel like not to have to deal with any of that, but also what it would be like to forgo day-to-day life with my daughter.