Judge Joseph L. Touro and the Belchertown State School for the Feeble Minded

Judge Joseph L. Touro has died.  The Boston Globe notice tells us how his long involvement with the Belchertown State School began in 1973.  He was a fair and honest judge.  And he simply did not think that the citizens living at the Belchertown State School deserved to live in sub-human circumstances simply because they were children with intellectual disabilities.

I first visited the Belchertown State School in 1978, as part of a volunteer program for helping with the socialization of individuals hoping to move to less restrictive settings, courtesy of Judge Touro's strong stance on the quality of their lives.  At this point, many of the Belchertown State School residents had moved out of the huge congregate dorms and into smaller group living in what used to be staff housing. Still, over the years, I did volunteer with groups in the huge congregate buildings, sobering stuff for a teenager.

I learned a lot at Belchertown State School, some of it none to flattering about the willingness of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its citizenry (including myself), to define these folks with intellectual impairments right out of the human race.  What I experienced and what I saw, has stayed with me.

It was parents that started the protest but Judge Touro who really took them seriously.

In 1972, Benjamin Ricci, the father of Belchertown patient Robert Simpson Ricci, filed a class-action lawsuit against the school, claiming that its young residents were living in horrific conditions. Ricci wrote of what he had seen when visiting his son at the institution, including naked patients smeared with urine, feces, and food, vomit-encrusted sheets, and "maggots wriggling inside or crawling out of the infected ears of several helpless, profoundly retarded persons while they lay in their crib-beds."

Judge Touro probably never realized how the course of his life would change because of his decision, one afternoon in 1973, to go visit Belchertown State School for himself. It is the small things, I think, that sometimes become the lynchpin of a career.

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