Leaving Redfield for a Brighter Future

Posted by Katy Beem on

Mark Samis of Sioux Falls vividly remembers the moment he moved out of the Redfield State Hospital and School. “The day I left Redfield, January 8, 1974,” says Samis, “That’s when I got my freedom back. I could truly feel free, like Martin Luther King said, ‘free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.’” 

Samis, who often cites historic moments in American history to reference his personal timeline, says he was 15 when he was institutionalized at Redfield for “intellectual disabilities” – “the day right after Kennedy made his Cuban speech.” Samis remained in Redfield throughout his young adulthood, released when he was 27 years old. 

Samis’ and other South Dakotans’ departure from the state hospital and school is intimately related in Leaving Redfield, a new 60-minute documentary from writer Paul Higbee and Ryan Phillips with the Technology & Innovation in Education (TIE). The film documents the state’s rather unheralded grass roots movement, led mainly by parents and families, to transition South Dakotans with intellectual or developmental disabilities out of isolated, barracks-style institutions and back into neighborhoods and communities. 

Known since 1989 as the South Dakota Developmental Center, Redfield’s facility was originally established by the state legislature in 1902 as the Northern Hospital for the Insane, although it was never a hospital for individuals with mental illness. In 1913, the name was changed to the State School and Home for the Feeble-Minded. In some manner, the name changes reflect South Dakota’s evolving attempt to better determine the needs of its individuals with developmental disabilities, a movement galvanized in the 1970s and 80s by parent advocates involved with the state’s Association for Retarded Children (ARC). “The ‘R-word’ has almost become like the ‘N-word,’ especially for people who have these disabilities,” says Higbee. “It’s very, very offensive. Yet, as offensive as that word is now, the ARC was a powerful, leading force – a very influential organization of parents who went to their elected officials and said, ‘This is not the best that South Dakota can do. There’s got to be a better way.’” 

Higbee says chronicling the almost invisible movement behind the social and policy changes was born out of Breaking Shells, a 2010 documentary about two men with developmental disabilities who tour South Dakota to educate people with developmental disabilities about their rights. “We wondered how many people we could find who had moved out of institutions like Redfield, what that experience was like for them, and how they found the world on the outside,” says Higbee. 

He and Phillips interviewed not only former Redfield residents but also parents, family members, support professionals and politicians like former Governor Harvey Wollman. In the era before options like special education, Higbee says it can be easy to underestimate the impact institutionalizing people had not just on those individuals, but on family members and whole communities. A sister shares the feeling of sudden loss when a sibling leaves the family home. A mother, who now lives in the same community as her son, tearfully relates the difficult decision to send her young child to Redfield. “She doesn’t come out and say it, but the situation is probably what made her marriage fail,” says Higbee. “You can imagine her being a young, single mom with no support during a lonely and helpless time. And she really did worry about just the physical safety of her son, any of us can imagine what that’s like. But she persevered and was part of the movement that brought change.” 

Higbee, whose family came to South Dakota when his father started Black Hills State University’s special education program in 1966, says Leaving Redfield captures South Dakotans at their best. “It’s an example of South Dakota really doing the right thing, led by its own citizens and making it a success.” 

Leaving Redfield premieres Monday, June 10, at 9pm (8 MT) on SDPB1. 

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