Pennhurst & PA Deinstitutionalization

Until the 1970s, people with developmental disabilities were typically warehoused in bleak, state-run institutions, entirely segregated from the community.

At the Pennhurst State School and Hospital and other institutions in Pennsylvania, residents were abused and neglected, and they were deprived of almost all social, educational and employment opportunities. In Pennsylvania, 12,000 children were sent to state institutions in 1970 alone. Even after the state and federal government created community living programs and recognized the right to an education of children with intellectual disabilities, over 10,000 people remained in segregated and often dangerous institutions in Pennsylvania.

We partnered with the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) to close the institutions and secure community-based living arrangements for the residents.

Pennhurst Litigation

Halderman v. Pennhurst was originally filed in 1974 on behalf of Terri Lee Halderman, who at the age of 20 had suffered a series of often-unexplained injuries during her ten years at Pennhurst. The initial lawsuit sought damages and institutional improvements at Pennhurst, but recognizing that segregated institutions are inherently discriminatory, we entered the lawsuit aiming to close Pennhurst.

The case went to trial in 1977, and District Court Judge Raymond J. Broderick gave a sweeping ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor, ordering the State to develop community placements and services for all Pennhurst residents. The Court wrote:

Conditions at Pennhurst are not only dangerous, with the residents often physically abused or drugged by staff members, but also inadequate for the ‘habilitation’ of the retarded. Indeed, the court found that the physical, intellectual, and emotional skills of some residents have deteriorated at Pennhurst.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision, and the order went into effect in 1979, securing community living arrangements first for school-age Pennhurst residents.

In 1980, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Pennhurst case for the first of three times. Though it agreed that conditions at Pennhurst were “dangerous,” the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling. The Court ruled that much of the Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act was essentially meaningless – that the law’s statement that people with disabilities “have a right to appropriate treatment, services, and habilitation” in “the setting that is least restrictive of . . . personal liberty” was advisory and not legally binding.

Hearing the case again, the Third Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, this time on the basis of a state law. And again, the Supreme Court overturned the Third Circuit’s ruling in 1984. The Court ruled in this second decision that lawsuits like Pennhurst cannot be brought to stop violations of state law by state officials.

Nevertheless, Pennhurst’s population was declining rapidly, with only 600 residents remaining in 1983 and a new Secretary of Public Welfare proposing a plan to move almost all of them into the community. After the Supreme Court’s second decision – a decade after the start of litigation – a settlement was reached to close Pennhurst by 1986 and to move residents of all of Pennsylvania’s institutions into the community when possible.

Pennhurst ultimately closed in 1987, though litigation continued through the 1990s to enforce the settlement agreement, which, despite Pennhurst’s closure, was not being well implemented. Many former residents were not being given the individualized services the consent decree required the state provide them, and the court found both the state and the County of Philadelphia in contempt for numerous violations of the agreement.

Oral Argument 1980

Oral Argument 1983

Other Pennsylvania Institutions

Following Pennhurst’s closing, the Law Center in partnership with PARC continued to fight for community placements and services for the over 6,000 people still segregated in restrictive and dangerous institutions. Two especially large and dangerous institutions remained – Embreeville Center and the Western Center.

  • Embreeville Center – Coatesville, PA

In January of 1994, we brought a lawsuit on behalf of a class of about 250 Embreeville residents, Pennsylvania Protection & Advocacy, Inc., and the Arc of Pennsylvania alleging that residents had been neglected, kept in inhumane conditions, and denied effective treatment. The lawsuit, Nelson v. Snider, built on investigations and litigation initiated in the late 1980s by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the two cases were consolidated soon after we filed.

In March of 1994, the class of Embreeville residents was certified, and a pretrial ruling prevented the defendants from relitigating questions previously answered by the Court in the Pennhurst case about the negative effects of institutionalization. The state, which had previously been unwilling to negotiate, quickly agreed to settle. In the settlement, we agreed that Embreeville would be gradually downsized and ultimately closed in 1997, and the settlement would stay in effect to ensure that the residents placed in the community were provided adequate services.

  • Western Center – Allegheny County

In September of 1989, we filed Richard C. v. John F. White, Jr., a class action on behalf of over 400 residents of the Western Center seeking to close the institution, which warehoused people with developmental disabilities in a segregated and harmful setting. We were joined in the lawsuit by the Disabilities Rights Network and Allegheny County.

In February of 1992, the Court certified the class of residents, and later than year the parties in the case reached a settlement agreement to phase out and close the Western Center. Though the vast majority of residents and families were happy to receive community placements and services, some residents’ family members opposed the settlement, hoping to keep the Western Center open. The judge approved the settlement over their objections in 1993. Still, litigation continued as the settlement went into effect and residents began moving into the community. The remaining challenges to the settlement were finally rejected in 1999, and the Western Center – then housing only 63 residents – closed in 2000.


The Law Center’s deinstitutionalization efforts in Pennsylvania led to a drastic shift in the lives of people with disabilities, as the population of state institutions in Pennsylvania decreased from the tens of thousands in the 1960s to just over one thousand in 2008. Though there is still much work to be done to secure necessary services in the community, our efforts helped build a new, carefully structured system of community living arrangements capable of replacing large-scale warehouses for people with disabilities.

Monitoring of formerly institution residents confirmed the benefits of community living for people with disabilities, showing markedly improved life skills, more involvement of relatives, and across-the-board reports of greater happiness.

See other Past Housing Cases