Fifty years ago, the bill creating pilot programs forming the basis of the Lanterman Act was signed into law. Assembly Bill 691 brought to life what we now know as the regional center system for serving people with developmental disabilities in the community. In those days, people with intellectual disabilities were "patients." Care was primarily institutional, with long waiting lists. Decisions were based on impersonal institutional standards. In 1963 in California, 13,500 persons with intellectual disabilities were crowded into state hospitals, with 3,000 more waiting for admission. Living conditions were marginal at best, and shocking at worst.
By the early 1960s, the spirit of change was gathering momentum. Parents began seeking alternatives to institutional placement for their children with intellectual disabilities. Their search uncovered a shocking truth that would change everything. During an unscheduled visit to Fairview State Hospital, a group of people - among them Vivian Walter, then Chair of Mental Hygiene for the California Council for Retarded Children, two other parents and a reporter for the Orange County Register - were stunned at the desperate conditions of patients. Mrs. Walter noted that in numerous visits to institutions in seven countries, these were "the worst conditions I have ever seen." That visit prompted a series of hearings and investigations that would lead to dramatic changes.
In 1964, with urging from parents through the California Council for Retarded Children (later renamed the California Association for Retarded Citizens), the Brown Administration appointed "A Study Commission on Mental Retardation." That same year, Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh created a new Assembly subcommittee to study care for people with intellectual disabilities in California. Assembly Majority Leader Jerome Waldie was chair, and Assemblymen Frank Lanterman and Nicholas Petris were members. The principal consultant was Art Bolton. In powerful testimony before the subcommittee, Vivian Walter said, "We will speak about a system and a philosophy that has been perpetuated in California...It is an extravagant system and philosophy that we can no longer afford - it wastes human lives and it does not give us a dollar's worth for the dollar we spend... "
Assembly Bill 691 was enacted in 1965, and signed by Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. The bill authorized the establishment of two pilot regional centers for persons with intellectual disabilities under contract with the State Department of Public Health. The centers were to call attention to unmet needs, assist in service development, upgrade services, maintain records, and provide systematic assessment, diagnosis and follow-up. The centers were also to assist in state hospital placement. In 1966, two pilot regional centers were established at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles and Aid for Retarded Children in San Francisco. The 1965-66 budget for the two regional centers was $966,386. They served a total of 559 individuals in the first year. In 1968, an Assembly study reviewing the effectiveness of the pilot regional center program presented a "Proposal to Reorganize California's Fragmented System of Services to the Mentally Retarded." The report concluded the pilot regional centers were successful and should be expanded statewide. In 1969, Assemblyman Frank D. Lanterman introduced AB225 to extend the regional center network of services throughout the State of California.
On September 4, 1969, Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman Act into law. He stated, "California is currently preparing to implement the Lanterman Mental Retardation Services Act. That progressive legislation provides us with a dynamic framework on which we shall build a comprehensive system to assure that the mentally retarded develop to the fullest extent of which they are capable.." One year after the Governor left office there were 21 Regional Centers, one for every million citizens – just as Frank Lanterman had envisioned.
Today, California's Regional Centers are serving 286,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families in communities throughout California, while the four remaining developmental centers (formerly state hospitals) serve barely 1,000 residents. But the challenges continue, and we stand at a crossroads as critical as the one that led to the development of the regional centers - rebuilding the state's financial commitment to community-based services for people with developmental disabilities.
This information is drawn from "We're Here To Speak For Justice: Founding California's Regional Centers." Produced by Frank D. Lanterman Regional Center, the document may be found in full here