The 1970s were an exciting time for America. Women were marching for equal rights. A thirteen year old Michael Jackson sang, “ABC, it’s easy as 123.” Stylish women wore mini-skirts; stylish men sported facial hair and fuzzy sideburns. And a kid named Steve Jobs was tinkering with electronics.
The 1970s were a time of change in other ways as well, especially when it came to attitudes about people with physical or mental disabilities, or troubled young people. It was the era of big state mental hospitals — fortresses where thousands of people were warehoused simply because no one could figure out what to do with them. And it was the era of “youth detention centers” or “reform schools” — usually secure facilities with bars on the windows.
But change was in the air. In the 1960s, idealistic social workers and community activists had started to question the status quo. Was it really necessary to lock up thousands of nonviolent people in psychiatric hospitals and reform schools? Surely there was a better solution.
The birth of CHD
In 1963, the U.S. Congress passed the “Community Mental Health Centers Act” with the goal of establishing local health centers as alternatives to state asylums. The problem was that not very many people had experience running community mental health programs.
It was a new frontier, one that called for new leaders.
In Massachusetts, three young activists – Bill Seretta, Art Bertrand and Kathy Townsend – were already envisioning a more humane, more effective approach to social problems. Each understood how poverty, hunger, traumatic experiences, and the lack of education or opportunity can contribute to mental illness and criminal behavior. Bob Fazzi, who was then working as a counselor at a facility for homeless kids, remembers how bad conditions were.
“Basically, reform schools had turned into prisons for poor kids,” he says. “It was a terrible system, taking people away from their homes and communities, and locking them up. It was inhumane, and unsustainable.”
“But we were optimists,” says Jim Goodwin. “We believed that positive change was possible. And we wanted to address the root causes of social problems.
That meant having a strong presence in the community, where people live and work and go to school.”
The young activists envisioned a new model for addressing social problems – one that called for community-based programs, active outreach and personal support.
In 1971, Seretta and Bertrand founded The Center for the Study of Institutional Alternatives (which became the Center for Human Development in 1976) and hired Fazzi as executive director, a position he held for 17 years.
“It was a different era,” recalls Fazzi. “There was almost no awareness of gay rights, disability rights, or PTSD. Nobody talked about autism or ADD.
And if you admitted you had any mental illness, even something like simple depression, you put your employment in jeopardy.”
“We had a lot of work to do,” Goodwin (who took over as executive director of CHD in 2005) agrees. “We had to help people survive and succeed in a culture that wasn’t supportive at all. That’s why our community-based model was so important. Instead of sending people AWAY for treatment, we brought our services to them right where they lived. And we hired great people, right from the beginning.”
One key factor in CHD’s effectiveness, says Fazzi, is the “spirit of innovation” that characterizes the organization’s approach to tackling problems. “CHD has never been afraid to question paradigms or change direction when necessary,” he says.
Still, the basic CHD model has not changed in over 40 years. “CHD was based on the concept of ‘supportive autonomy,’” says Goodwin. “We place a lot of trust in people, yes, but we’ve found that most people live up to the expectations you place on them. And if you provide the right support, most people can overcome any challenge. We’ve seen it time and again.”
In the past four decades, CHD has provided services to over 200,000 individuals and families in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Both Goodwin and Fazzi agree that maintaining CHD as a strong community presence is critical to the quality of life in the region. “I think it’s safe to say that CHD has impacted the quality of life of everyone in our community,” says Fazzi. “We are living better lives because CHD is here.”
“At CHD, we always think in terms of communities and families,” says Goodwin, “We want to create programs that we would be proud to recommend to someone in our own families. If we can do that, then we know we’ve succeeded.”