Sunday Schooled

Amy SilvermanJanuary 5, 2024
Share This

Reporting on Arizona’s last remaining institution for the intellectually disabled, a Valley journalist learns a surprising lesson about church and state.

You can find one of the last institutions in the country for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities about an hour outside Phoenix.

Take the I-10 south to the 287 near Casa Grande and drive past lush, rolling desert until you find dusty Coolidge – more of a strip than a city, not much beyond a Walmart and a couple of spots to grab excellent Mexican food. At the far end of Coolidge, the Arizona Training Program is the last stop before you hit the even smaller town of Randolph.

There’s always plenty of parking.

The grounds of the sprawling complex are green and manicured, with cottages circling administrative buildings and a recreation hall. At one point, the place held well over 800 residents, but today there are about 50.

LDS volunteers with residents at the Arizona Training Program facility; Photo by Patrick Bryant
LDS volunteers with residents at the Arizona Training Program facility; Photo by Patrick Bryant
a walk on the campus; Photo by Brandon Sullivan
a walk on the campus; Photo by Brandon Sullivan
outside a residential “cottage” on the property; Photo by Brandon Sullivan
outside a residential “cottage” on the property; Photo by Brandon Sullivan

No one new has been placed at the facility in decades. The youngest resident is most likely in their late 60s by now. When the last one passes away, the place will close. It is, quite literally, a dying institution.

Meanwhile, the mandate behind the Arizona Training Program has been dead many years, put to rest when national policymakers decided that people with diagnoses like Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy should live in the community rather than in a congregate setting where they only interact with paid staff – a well-known recipe for abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Tucked away in a remote, rural location, the Arizona Training Program feels like a well-kept secret. Privacy laws conceal most details of its operations, aside from the population count and some Medicaid-required inspections. Even those intimately familiar with the community of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Arizona have never heard of it.

And so, I was surprised to learn that there is a specific population in Phoenix and throughout Arizona that knows the place very well.

In 2018, I asked the state for a tour of the facility. I’d visited before for a story, but it had been many years, and I was curious to see what life at the facility was like as it entered its twilight.

The request was granted, but the tour – like so many government tours – felt incomplete. The state sent the director of the Department of Economic Security and what felt like half his staff down to accompany me. I saw a lot of hallways.

What I really wanted was to meet residents, to see what their lives were like. To put a human face on this place. So, I tracked down the sister of one of the few surviving original residents, a man named Daryl
Arrington who had cerebral palsy and, at age 3, had been sent to live at the facility the day it opened in 1952.

Blinda Mills was sweet and willing to help.

“Come to church with me next Sunday and you can meet my brother,” she told me over the phone.

“I’d love it,” I replied, imagining a weekly ritual where Blinda transported Daryl to a nearby church. “But what I’d like is to meet your brother where he lives.”

“I know,” she said. “That’s where the church service is.”

LDS stake leader Scott McEuen with residents; Photos by Brandon Sullivan
LDS stake leader Scott McEuen with residents; Photos by Brandon Sullivan
LDS stake leader Scott McEuen started the Sunday visitation program at Arizona Training Program; Photo by Brandon Sullivan
LDS stake leader Scott McEuen started the Sunday visitation program at Arizona Training Program; Photo by Brandon Sullivan

On just about every Sunday for the past three decades, Mormon Church wards from across Arizona have sent Suburbans full of teenagers to attend a church service at Randolph House, an old nickname for the Arizona Training Program. The kids interact one-on-one with the residents – walking them from their cottages to the rec hall, singing songs and waving small American flags when the music gets patriotic.

When I first learned of this, it was like I’d stepped into some kind of weird portal. I wasn’t sure how to react. Religion is complicated, and so is the Arizona Training Program. Could there be any combination that felt right?

It’s not hard to figure out why this institution has held such fascination for me for so long.

My daughter Sophie, now 20, was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth. Today, Sophie studies dance in community college, interns at a vintage boutique and regularly performs onstage – sometimes alongside other people with disabilities, sometimes not. She’s gotten into storytelling. She serves as a self-advocate on the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council.

Sophie also loves YouTube and shopping. Lately, she’s developed an interest in football because a certain pop star has a new boyfriend.

If Sophie had been born in the 1950s, she likely would have died after a few weeks because the fix for her congenital heart defect wouldn’t come along for decades. And if she had survived, there’s a good chance she would have been sent to Coolidge for the rest of her life.

I’m grateful that my husband and I never had to make that choice, even though some days it feels like Sophie’s a contestant on a game show, racing through a maze, trying door after door. Will there be a friend behind this one? A real job behind that one? A chance to live on her own? To have a boyfriend? To feel like she really fits in somewhere?

More doors close than open for Sophie.

For as tough as it can be – for both her and, frankly, for me – I wouldn’t turn back time. As a society, we have not figured out how to integrate people with intellectual and developmental disabilities into our community in meaningful ways. Far from it, and I have a collection of horror stories that demonstrates that being in the community does not guarantee safety or any kind of quality of life.

But at least we’re trying.

On the official occasions I’ve visited the Arizona Training Program, I’ve gotten glimpses of what life is like, and it’s grim – a day room where people with complex medical needs along with developmental disabilities simply sit; a space where others “work” sorting screws and other small parts for pennies an hour.

The place appears clean and safe – and it should, considering that in September the state reported that it cost almost $25 million to support 53 residents in the past year.

Even that might not be enough.

Recent inspection reports reflect instances of abuse and neglect, although the state never seems to take any enforcement actions. This place needs every extra set of eyes it can get.

LDS stake leader Scott McEuen with residents; Photo by Brandon Sullivan
LDS stake leader Scott McEuen with residents; Photo by Brandon Sullivan

On a chilly Sunday in early March 2018, I met Blinda Mills in the parking lot of the Arizona Training Program. She walked me to the rec hall, a vintage building with high ceilings and a few holiday decorations still hanging from the rafters.

Soon the place was filled with teenage girls and boys dressed crisply in skirts and ties, hair curled and slicked back. Each was paired with a resident, some of whom used wheelchairs. Others leaned heavily on the arms of their young companions. The kids looked awkward but willing to try.

“What if someone doesn’t want to go to church?” I asked Mills over the swell of religious songs. She assured me that no one was forced to go. But looking at these ancient, wrinkled faces and all that medical equipment, I wondered how many were actually able to make such a decision.

Mills explained that this was a “primary service,” generally held for children. Mostly music, simple songs like “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”

This made me wince a little – advocates in the disability community fight hard against infantilizing adults with intellectual disabilities, arguing they should not be treated like children – but at least, I reasoned, there wasn’t a lot of hardcore God talk this way.

In any case, almost everyone appeared to be having a good time. Everyone but me.

I was really uncomfortable. I was raised as a cultural Jew, but I’d been exposed to the LDS community growing up in the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix in the 1980s. Let’s just say that I got most of the references when I saw the Broadway show The Book of Mormon. I’ve always been wary of organized religion, particularly when it involves proselytizing.

But a funny thing happened as I watched from the sidelines. I changed my mind. In the span of an hour, the younger people were engaging with their partners, laughing and singing and, most important, listening – even if they couldn’t quite understand what was said. They were connecting in an authentic way, and I had to stop and ask myself, “When is the last time any of these residents had a visitor?”

And if religious obligation was what got them there, who was I to complain?

Back in the Valley, my friend Rachel and I swapped tales about our weekend adventures, and I was surprised when she said, “Oh, I’ve been to Randolph House. Did they sing ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam?’”

Rachel grew up Mormon. She and her husband raised their older three children in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but their faith was wavering by the time their fourth child, Sarah, started elementary school.

If Rachel’s now-grown kids had been to Randolph House when they were teens, the program had to be decades old, I realized. This went deeper than I thought.

And what about Sarah? She’d never been to Randolph House, but I wondered if the experience of her other family members had rubbed off?

Sarah is Sophie’s best friend. They met in the bathroom on the first day of kindergarten where – as Sophie loves to tell it – Sarah lifted Sophie so she could wash her hands at the bathroom sink. Sophie was the tiniest kid in class; today, as an adult, she’s barely 4-foot-5. If Sarah wasn’t the tallest kid, she was close. They made an odd couple, but it stuck.

The teacher called me at the end of that first day to report that Sophie had made a friend. This was (honestly, still is) a big deal. By kindergarten, Sophie had already had her share of struggles in school – including making friends – and Sarah was, well, a godsend.

I wondered if Sarah was more open to Sophie than their other classmates because her family had spent time at Randolph House.

It also didn’t hurt that Sarah’s grandfather had been a college professor focused on special education, or that her mom is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met – whether she belongs to the church or not.

But I’ve been around long enough to know that this is not simply about kindness or doing something because you know it’s the right thing to do. It’s also about familiarity. Sophie is literally the first person with Down syndrome I ever met. When she was born, I’d had no experience – not even a Sunday’s worth – with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

I felt more than a little envious of those teenagers.

The Arizona Children’s Colony opened in 1952 to great fanfare. Up until then, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities had been housed at the Arizona State Hospital in Phoenix, living alongside people with serious mental illness. Conditions were abysmal.

Coolidge was billed as a huge improvement, with land purchased by the family of Nancy Reagan (they had a home in Arizona) and state-of-the-art services and personnel. An article in the local paper at the time touted the recruitment of Washington, D.C.’s director of special education.

By the 1970s, the institution, like many around the country, was overcrowded, and conditions were absolutely disgusting. A small room in the administrative wing at the institution serves today as a museum, and you can see photos of tightly packed rows of beds that look like the set of a horror movie.

A lawsuit resulted in many community placements and cleaned the place up. The renamed Arizona Training Program has remained home to dozens of people who first came to live there in the ’50s and ’60s. Efforts to close the facility have been thwarted by family members who’ve reminded lawmakers that this is the only home some of these people have ever known.

In 1991, a member of the Mormon Church named Scott McEuen was asked to help start a new stake in Casa Grande. The church divides the state into stakes and from there into smaller wards. As the president of the Casa Grande stake, McEuen quickly turned his attention to two nearby facilities he believed desperately needed ministry: the state prison and the Arizona Training Program.

The Arizona Training Program had long had a chaplain, but when McEuen arrived, the Sunday service became a focal point of the week.

“The goal was to help individuals, but the process was as important as the goal,” McEuen says. “And the process was these youth – in the hundreds … probably in the thousands – who are now either young adults or adults themselves, they still mention what a life-changing experience and a greater understanding and appreciation of their own lives that occurred.”

I started asking around, and it turns out Rachel’s not the only person I know who’s visited Randolph House.

Kevin DeMenna, a longtime Republican lobbyist, has fond memories of bringing his son to the Sunday service and mentioned that often, teens return from Randolph House and speak eloquently about the experience in church.

Kim Tait, who grew up LDS in the Valley and is currently raising a family in Gilbert, was also impacted by her visits. “It felt like we were able to remember people who had otherwise felt like they had been forgotten,” she says.

Tait now participates in a weekly program where members of the church interact with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities living in the community.

Tricia Riggs of Casa Grande has fond memories of attending the Sunday service both as a teen and an adult. “The residents are always happy and singing,” she wrote in a text. “If they aren’t able to sing, they find joy in movement or making noise of some sort to express what they can, how they can.

“They taught me that happiness does not come through material things. It comes from finding joy in whatever circumstance we may be in. This lesson has stayed with me throughout my life, and I enjoy going back with my own children and other teenagers so that they can hopefully learn this lesson or a different lesson of their own.”

I haven’t spoken to Blinda Mills since before the pandemic.

Over these past several years her mother passed away, as did her brother Daryl and sister Darla, both of whom had lived at the Arizona Training Program since the 1950s, along with Daryl’s twin, Dorrel, who passed away in 2011. The twins were significantly impacted by cerebral palsy; Darla had microcephaly.

According to a report made to the legislature this fall, the population of the Arizona Training Program dropped from 58 to 53 over the past year.

However, annual costs actually increased in the past year, from $23 million to $24.9 million. And despite the bucolic setting, conditions are not necessarily good at the Arizona Training Program.

On behalf of Medicaid, the state inspects the living spaces at the institution. A review of inspection reports from seven cottages – each designed to house fewer than a dozen residents – reveals concerning findings.

One cottage received 21 citations in 2022, including for blocked exits and poorly maintained cooking equipment. More troubling are the references to a lack of staff. According to that inspection report, this resulted in one resident suffering a bruised and broken hand. Another was left unsupervised and strapped to equipment that was not approved for that resident.

There’s also a citation noting that a lack of staff led to medical equipment not being properly cleaned, which resulted in it being “dirty and infested with flies and fly larva.”

In another cottage, state investigators reviewed a report that staff made comments in front of a resident with profound intellectual disability and cerebral palsy such as, “Doesn’t it creep you out looking at him?”

Another report stated that a staff member was changing the clothing of a resident with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy and asked another staff member if they thought the resident “looked like another staff [member]” and concluded the resident was “less ugly.”

And then there’s the report that a resident with low vision, hearing impairment and partial incontinence was physically abused. Abrasions and a bruise on the forehead were noted. One of the staff reported that a worker hit the client repeatedly in the back of the head. Others confirmed the report. Another reported the worker hit the client in the face as well and yelled at them.

The institution was unable to prove there had been abuse, according to the inspection report.

These issues and more were identified in 2022 and 2023. Often the state is looking into allegations that are many months old. None of the findings resulted in any enforcement actions.

It’s been years since the last Sunday service at the Arizona Training Program.

A spokesperson for the church says the LDS Sunday service at Randolph House stopped at the beginning of the pandemic. There’s talk about starting again, but as of now, no firm plans.