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April 10, 2001

WYATT VS. STICKNEY

"Let’s go mama, there’s nothing but a bunch of damn fools in here."

by Carol Stickney

[Editor's note: The late Dr. Stonewall B. Stickney was a columnist for the Harbinger from 1986 to 1996 where he penned a column titled "Ask Dr. Salvo." Dr. Stickney, or Stone as he was known to his friends, was an important figure in the field of public health psychiatry. He played a critical role, as the Alabama State Commissioner of Mental Health, in the 1971 Supreme Court ruling which found unconstitutional the way mental health patients were warehoused in state institutions for long periods of time without treatment. Dr. Stickney’s wife, Carol Stickney, contributed the following essay about her impression of the case.]

There are lawsuits and there are lawsuits and this one was the "granddaddy of lawsuits." Wyatt vs. Stickney.

As I recall, this suit did not start out with that name but was filed by a disgruntled group of psychologists from the University of Alabama. Stone and the Alabama Board of Mental Health were going to have to make some big changes. It seemed that there was a funding shortfall somehow to do with cigarette taxes. Their thinking was to cut staff but start with some of the excesses at the top, wanting to keep the most caregivers there that were with the patients all the time. Sort of "create a crisis" management. At that time I think that the two major sources of employment in Tuscaloosa were the University of Alabama and Bryce and Partlow Hospitals. Some of the Ph.D. psychologists were laid off and were suing the Mental Health Department for their lost jobs.

The original suit was in the court of a friendly judge there in Tuscaloosa with a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs but it ended up in the Federal Court of the Honorable Frank Johnson. Frank Johnson was a "larger than life" figure. By now the story of Johnson and George Wallace, his former friend from his law school days was legend. Many people felt that Frank Johnson was the de facto leader in Alabama as the State leadership had proven time and time again that they were not able to govern. The suit by the psychologists was lost at the Federal Level but rumor has it that as they were leaving the courtroom that Frank Johnson mused that they were missing the big picture; that being incarcerated against their will, the patients had the right to adequate care (and what determines adequate care?). Of course that turned out to be like discussing "how many angels one could be put on the head of a pin‚" and there we were today.

The Federal Courthouse in Montgomery is a very impressive building but could in no way match the impression I had that day of its chief occupant. Frank D. Johnson. I had heard of him for years but he was in no way diminished by seeing him in person. Very serious looking, lean and angular much like I think that Abraham Lincoln might have looked. He ran a tight courtroom; this was not the Southern type Courtroom as portrayed by Dukes of Hazard or The Andy Griffin Show. This was serious business, and once you walked into that room you knew that this was the fact.

Well we were listening to some of the top minds in the Mental Health Field discuss what was "adequate treatment." Some of my favorites were Al Glass, an old commander of Stone from his service in the military and a former mental health commissioner from Illinois; Gene Hargrove, the Commissioner from North Carolina; and Milton Greenblatt, the Mental Health Commissioner from Massachusetts. They were all there giving their expert opinions, and the most notable one there was Dr. Karl Menninger. There was another prominent psychiatrist there named Ewalt Bussey. As I recall, Dr. Bussey as well as Dr. Karl were both graduates of Harvard. Dr. Bussey apparently "puffed up" about that fact but Dr. Karl was not the case. When asked if he had graduated from Harvard Dr. Karl said ‚ "yes, but I got over it." What a delightful man he turned out to be as was his wife. By now we were into the second or third day of testimony with opinions ranging from the realistic to the ridiculous. Now remember that we are a poor state, one of the poorest and were hearing testimony from Dr. Bussey with his "Ivory Tower Opinion" about needing more Psychiatrists then we had in the whole state of Alabama at that one hospital in Tuscaloosa.

This testimony was droning on in the afternoon after lunch as Dr. Bussey was on the stand and all of a sudden there was a rustling noise and some commotion going on near the front of the Courtroom. Judge Johnson looked fairly startled and then amused as Dr. Menninger and his wife were the source of the disruption with a sudden departure from the courtroom and in a stage whisper one could hear Dr. Menninger say to his wife "come on mama, there’s nothing but a bunch of fools in here."

Well the lawsuit was concluded and it was no great surprise that the State of Alabama lost that case. Indeed the patients were not getting adequate care. Stone had convinced the Board that that was not a fact to be contested. They defended what they felt they could but never did they try to say that they were providing adequate care. The funding never was there. As it turned out Stone’s Philosophy and Goals of a Mental Health Department and the guidelines that they proposed turned out to be more or less the guidelines for care and the case was ended. The Board’s support for Stone did not last long. In the end they caved to George Wallace and decided they didn’t want to admit any wrong. Needless to say, Stone’s tenure as Mental Health Commissioner was coming to an end.


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