Memorial Statement for Freda Smith
By Dick Cohen
Freda Smith had a long, robust life with many varied interests at the center of which was her family. I knew her through her advocacy on behalf of her late daughter, Janet, and so many others who were institutionalized at Laconia State School. I worked closely with Freda around the Laconia State School class action lawsuit, Garrity v. Gallen, and years later when she served as a Disability Rights Center Board member. As a result of her disability advocacy, she was recognized by the Concord Monitor as one of the 100 most influential persons in New Hampshire in the twentieth century.
Up through the 1970s/80s, the predominant way New Hampshire and all other states “served” individuals with developmental disabilities was by institutionalizing them in large, segregated, and isolated institutions where conditions became more inhumane over time. Due primarily to Freda’s leadership and sheer will, along with the contributions of others, New Hampshire ultimately closed Laconia, replacing it with the statewide Area Agency system, becoming the first state in the union to do so.
Freda’s disability advocacy was based on her own personal beliefs but was also grounded on fundamental legal and human rights. Institutions such as Laconia were not only unnecessary to
support individuals with disabilities, but they also deprived them of their very rights to be safe and to achieve their potential.
Like so many parents, Freda and Harvey Smith placed Janet at Laconia State School as there were no educational or social services available in the community. Because of the institution’s lack of transparency, it was difficult for parents, or any “outsider,” to know the true depth of the horrific conditions there. When Freda learned what was happening at Laconia, she began unceasing efforts to compel reform not only for her daughter, but for all residents. She became President of the New Hampshire ARC as well as a leader of the Laconia State School ARC chapter. In 1975, she was instrumental in the enactment of RSA 171-A, the state’s transformative community-based services law.
While there were some improvements after the passage of that law—due primarily to federal funding measures —conditions remained egregious. Freda, as a parent and president of NHARC along with Jim Haddock, its executive director, approached NH Legal Assistance to see if they would file suit. John Macintosh and I were the attorneys selected as co-counsel. The federal class action suit, with Janet as one of the six named plaintiffs, was filed in 1978. After a 10-week trial in 1980, Judge Devine ordered the State to establish the Area Agency system, ultimately leading to the closure of the institution in 1991.
While the trial clearly established that most, if not all, residents at Laconia State School would be far better off in the community, there were some who were skeptical. It was understandably hard for some parents to imagine a comprehensive and coordinated community system. Freda had the vision, imagination, and boldness to understand that the only way her daughter and all children and adults could have the opportunity to be truly safe and secure would be to live in their community close to family, friends, and neighbors. She thus played a key role in advancing the lawsuit not just in the court but amongst many skeptical parents and citizens.
What made Freda such a force for transformative change? Her imagination and boldness, to be sure. She also had a formidable quality which some found intimidating. But in my view, what motivated Freda were high standards and her profoundly loving and caring heart for her Janet and all those with disabilities.
So many lives were changed, and continue to change, because of Freda. As we pay tribute to Freda, let her commitment to disability rights inspire us to work towards inclusive and quality lives for all people.
Dick Cohen is an attorney and disability rights advocate. He served as co-counsel on Garrity v. Gallen and was the Executive Director of Disability Rights Center – NH from 2002-2015.