My great aunt (was housed in PA mental institutions for 55 yrs!!)

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Hi, everyone. I'm researching my great aunt (my grandmother's sister), Pauline, who was born and raised in Throop, PA (near Scranton). I'm a writer by trade/career but not a genealogist, so I'd like some assistance from some of you who have more experience researching this kind of thing.

I have started what I hope becomes a book about Pauline (right now, there's just not enough information for that, so much of my book is speculation on the person I think Pauline was). I'd like more facts/documentation, and I need your advice on how to get them.

Her story is very interesting. I hope you'll indulge me (this will be a long post; I need some help from more experienced genealogists, and I need to share what I think is a FASCINATING if not tragic and sad story of a woman born to a large family who spent most of her life "alone").

Her story is a standard one for Northeastern PA families: Pauline was born in 1916 in Throop, PA. Left school in the 8th grade. Had 11 siblings (more sisters than brothers). Parents emigrated here from Czechoslavakia. In or around 1940, she was committed (I think by her father and other male relatives) to the Scranton State Hospital in Clarks Summit in 1940 (she was 24). We of the younger generations never found out why. My mother never even knew there WAS a Pauline until the late 1980s when my grandmother finally told her! Pauline had fallen and broken her hip; Danville State Hospital wrote to my grandmother asking her to come and sign some papers to allow them to perform surgery. My grandmother hadn't seen her sister in decades; my mom escorted her to the institution. It's the last time she saw Pauline alive, I believe.

I'm not convinved Pauline actually had a diagnosed mental illness. My family has very little info on her and didn't speak of her. In hindsight, now that I know of her existence, it seemed to be intentional (the "not speaking of her"). My mother only found out about her a few years before my great aunt died. And then, in an odd twist of, what should I call it, "sudden family caring for one's own?", they brought her body home and had a full-blown funeral and burial in the family plot! What the heck? I mean, I'm glad they didn't allow her to be buried on the institution grounds, but, seriously, what was the point of bringing her home only after she was dead? What about all those years she spent alive and alone?

Although Pauline was committed to the Scranton facility, I don't think it was too long after that that she was later moved to Danville (where she spent the vast majority of her years). Then, much later, as an elderly person I believe, she was moved to South Mountain Restoration Center (in central PA, I think).

I'm actively researching all 3 institutions. Danville is the institution that I think will contain the most info on Pauline. Second behind that is Clarks Summit, where she started her residence. South Mountain is actually a quick 2-hr drive for me from my current home in MD. One of these days, I hope to drive there and at least see it. She wasn't there for very long in comparison to the other places, probably only 5 or 10 years.

Overall, she spent about 55 years of her life in PA mental institutions!!!! I want to know why.

I want to know details about what her diagnoses were, and why my family never, ever, EVER even spoke of her much less visited her. Just telling her story makes me weep every single time. We are a loving family. Why was this allowed, especially after the 1950s, when mental health treatment began to see a radical transformation and a reduction in admissions/commissions? Why didn't my family come forward and say "we want her back"? I have so many questions.

She was one of 12 siblings! As the family historian, I have scanned over 900 photos of this side of my family alone. They sure loved to take pictures, go on picnics, travel regionally, have parties, celebrate birthdays and holidays. I have seen what appears to be great love and care by reading their letters to one another, seeing their clear fondness for one another in all the photos, and yet, the family signed her over as a ward of the state, renouncing all financial and ethical family responsibility for her. Despite the Great Depression and years afterward, they seemed to have done pretty well during these challenging times and lived in a large colonial style home on a prominent corner in Dunmore, PA. They didn't have a lot of money, probably, but they always appeared well-dressed, well coiffed, and clean/respectable looking in all the photos; especially during their teens and 20s, Pauline and her sisters were especially BEAUTIFUL and stylish!!! Oh, the hats! The hair! The dresses! The makeup!

My grandmother was this woman's oldest sister. All the siblings are now deceased. Pauline's youngest sister just died last week.

Now that all of them are gone, can I claim myself as the next of kin to Pauline, in order to obtain detailed medical and residential records? I am the oldest daughter in my family. My mother is the oldest living child of my grandmother, who is the oldest sister of Pauline. That puts me as "next of kin," right?

I want to get a sense of what life was like for Pauline, during all those years when her parents (before their death) and her siblings (all 11 of them) lived their lives without ever going to visit her (with a few exceptions, my grandma being one). I love my family and its rich history and all the stories and photos and letters I've been blessed with being able to obtain, keep, scan, and preserve--but I will never understand the "why" and the "how" of Pauline's situation.

And, no worries: I'm ready to hear difficult things in terms of what life was like at these institutions; I know it wasn't all sunshine and roses for the "inmates," as she was called in the one (count it; one) census record I have.

She just seems to have vanished after 1940, save for the (about five) documents I have found on her (death certificate, census record, a few old photos that are fuzzy).

Where do I even begin? I want to contact the 3 institutions that I know she was at. When I call them, what do I even say? Who do I ask to be directed to? How do I continue to open doors even when brick walls will present themselves (and I am certain they will, b/c of HIPAA or because of destroyed or hard-to-access records).

If you are STILL with me and still reading this post, thank you for listening. I am the only one in my family who is at all interested in "getting to know" Pauline better, in whatever circuituous route I need to take in order to do that. I'm 48: I have lots of years left to devote to Pauline, and I plan to do just that!

I don't give up easily, and I WILL find whatever info is still out there on her. The problem is, I don't even know where to start, or what my rights are as a requester of proprietary, no-doubt-HIPAA-protected patient information (family member or not).

Thanks! Please reply here or email me at and put "Pauline" in the subject line.

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Unfortunately Pennsylvania is one of the states that isn't easy to get records from, if they still exist. For starters, HIPAA no longer applies to mental health records more then 50 years old, so it's down to the individual state laws. Try contacting Danville State Hospital and see where they direct you. I recall someone saying it is hit or miss with the state archives.

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