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A haven and a hell for unwanted girls

After more than a century of contradictions, a Kansas reformatory

November 01, 2009|Heather Hollingsworth | Hollingsworth writes for the Associated Press.

BELOIT, KAN. — Many were broken, many were saved here.

Beloit's name became synonymous with its girls reformatory, one of the longest-operating in the country, which for more than a century mirrored the most enlightened reforms but also the cruelest horrors of such places. Now, at its closing, residents and staff members are wrestling with the contradictions.

Beloit was where "bad girls" were sent: That's what Diane Roles had heard as a child. A friend's sister had gone there.

Growing up in the 1960s, Roles endured a seriously dysfunctional family -- a chronically violent father and a fearful mother. People didn't talk much about child abuse then, and young Diane's solution was to run away from home to escape beatings.

Once, she said, her father kicked her with his steel-toed boot, leaving her jaw swollen. Another time, her bruised legs prompted a girlfriend's mother and a neighbor to call her family. But nothing changed.

"I got to the place where I didn't even cry anymore," she said. "The more they hit me, the more I laughed."

Her older sister complained to their mother that she had been molested. Roles said her mother slapped the sister, saying, "What am I supposed to do?"

The offense that landed Roles in the juvenile court system was taking her brother's car for a joy ride. After fleeing a foster home, she was offered placement in a "trade school," and she grabbed it.

It wasn't until the frightened 13-year-old was riding across the wind-swept prairie of rural north-central Kansas that it dawned on her the school was Beloit. "I mean to tell you my heart dropped clear down to my toes," she said.

But looking back now, she sees it differently. "Going to Beloit was a safe haven for me," she said. "Basically, I was an abused kid. Back in them days they didn't do anything. They shook their heads."

The Women's Christian Temperance Union, a suffragist group that had fought for prohibition, lobbied for what became known as the Beloit Juvenile Correctional Facility, soliciting donations and operating it for a couple of years before Kansas took over in 1890. As was common at the time, girls as young as 8 spent long days toiling in the gardens and caring for the animals that supplied their food. For a time, girls were indentured to farm families.

With the high-minded ideals of the reformers, there was a dark side as well, said Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council for Juvenile Correctional Administrators in Braintree, Mass. "These kids were an eyesore for the upper classes of society. The solution wasn't to change the conditions they were growing up in, the poverty and lack of parental supervision. The view was to get them out of sight. Then people forgot they were there, and abuses crept into the system."

Under some administrations, girls were punished with huge doses of vomit- and diarrhea-inducing castor oil, humiliated with forced hair clipping. In the darkest period, dozens underwent involuntary sterilizations.

"It totally infuriates me," said Katrina Pollet, pausing at a box of yellowed photos from years gone by as staff sorted and packed up late this summer. The last superintendent, she is passionate about helping the girls who've left Beloit.

"It's so important to me because I could have easily been here," said Pollet, who at 16 was a pregnant high school dropout.

School records, some in musty leather-bound books, were sorted and stored, and their mundane details sketched life at Beloit and the shifting attitudes it reflected.

A 1930s file described one girl as "incorrigible" and noted she "associated with Mexican men" and "became intoxicated at dances."

The offense for another young charge was being "immoral (with father)." Later, the record shows, the girl was treated for genital warts. It was common practice for much of the facility's history to lock up young abuse victims rather than their abusers.

Both girls spent about four years at Beloit.

When the reformatory was founded, girls "were really viewed in our society much more as property," said J. Russell Jennings, commissioner of the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority. "And the expectation for behavior of girls and what occurred with them when they didn't meet those expectations really provided an open door for young girls to be institutionalized for noncrime events. Not even running away, but just kind of being a pain in the neck."

The treatment they received varied, as it was not uncommon in the early days for entire staffs to change after elections. Some administrations taught the girls to play musical instruments and barred corporal punishment, while others relied on draconian forms of discipline.

The most infamous superintendent was Lula Coyner, whose cruelty caused the girls to march to the sheriff's office and demand an investigation.

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