Beloit a girls’ reformatory horror story

Writen by Janet

Beloit was one of the longest running reformatories operating in the country, for girls.  Many were broken, and many were saved here.  Beloit was where bad girls were sent.  The Juvenile Correctional Facility, has no fence or barbed wire.  Across the street is the high school for the shrinking, agricultural town of 3,600. Its two-block long downtown, filled with charming century-old buildings, is less than a mile away.

This institution is typical of the of the ones that began opening in the middle part of the 19th century as rehabilitation-focused reformers sought to end the practice of housing juveniles alongside adults in deplorable conditions.  

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a suffragist group that had fought for prohibition, lobbied for the girls’ facility in Kansas, soliciting donations of land and money and operating it for its first couple of years before the state took it 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 even indentured to farm families.

But what no one knew, the facility had a darkside too.  The kids sent here were an eyesore to the upper classes of society.  They grew up in poverty, and were lacking adult supervision.  They had to get them out of sight, once there, they were forgotten, and the abuse crept in. 

The abuses were many – 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. 

Records show as far back as the 1930s, 

a file for one girl described her as “incorrigible” and noted she “associated with Mexican men” and “became intoxicated at dances.”

The offense for another young charge was listed as being “immoral (with father).” Later in the record, it shows the girl was taken for removal of venereal 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 seen as property, 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 non-crime events. Not even running away but just kind of being a pain in the neck.  The treatment they received varied.  Some administrations taught the girls to play musical instruments and barred corporal punishment, while others relied on draconian forms of discipline.

History says the most infamous superintendent was Lula Coyner.  

In 1935 and 1936, Coyner undertook a campaign of forced sterilization after becoming enamored with an international movement known as eugenics, a philosophy also popular among the Nazis that sought to prevent those deemed mentally disabled or otherwise genetically inferior from having children.   

During her tenure, 62 girls – almost half of her charges – were transported about 175 miles away to the Women’s Prison Hospital in Lansing to have their fallopian tubes removed.

The reason: Coyner wrote in a 1936 report that girls who “asked to be sterilized” had “serious physical or family handicaps,” such as venereal diseases, insanity, epilepsy and illegitimacy. She later defended her action, writing that it was “the finest service to society the Girls’ Industrial School has ever contributed.”

The harsh treatment had been swept away by the time Diane Roles arrived. Beloit became a training ground for workers from the Topeka-based Menninger Clinic, which became known internationally for humanizing treatment of the mentally ill.  The therapy provided a means for the girls to finally talk openly about the abuse many of them had experienced. There was usually at least one young murderess at Beloit, generally sent there for killing an abuser. But runaways like Roles were much more common.

By the 1970s, the environment started to change with the passing of laws that sought to end the incarceration of status offenders – those whose offenses wouldn’t be a crime if committed by an adult. The practice wasn’t fully eliminated in Kansas until 1983.  

The Beloit facility averaged just 21 girls in the just-ended 2009 fiscal year, down from 103 in 1999; because of the low numbers, the state was spending an average of $200,000 a year on each girl. In the midst of a deep recession that has caused massive budget cuts in Kansas, like most other places, the expenses for Beloit became just too high. After more than 120 years, it closed in August.

Bobbie Stillman, who called Beloit home until the end, said the announcement that the facility was closing caused her to hyperventilate and sent her to her room, feeling “overwhelmed and let down.”

Knowing the girls were worried, staff members gave Stillman and the others teddy bears before their move, and the girls cuddle the bears as they watch television and sleep.

Over the years, staff members had raised money to buy the girls Christmas presents. Some corresponded with their former charges, following them as they pursued careers in nursing, social work and criminal justice. Few became adult offenders.

Roles, who married, had three children and worked as a mental health aide, stayed in touch with one of her housemothers and with former superintendent Dennis Shumate.

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3 Comments

  1. rachell

    When i was 17 years old, i graduated from the youth center. Back then it wasn’t like that. And i’m glad i have 3 very handsome boys. Now I’m 33 and can’t even beleive a women herself would make such a harsh decisions on a very young girl. She took her life away,and as if it wasn.t bad enough.

  2. newsdeskinternational

    Wear wristwatch? Use e-mail? Not for Class of ’14

    For students entering college this fall, e-mail is too slow, phones have never had cords and the computers they played with as kids are now in museums.

    http://channels.isp.netscape.com/news/story.jsp?floc=ne-us-12-l6&idq=/ff/story/0001%2F20100817%2F1005.htm&sc=1110

  3. Louisa

    I was very upset about the comments about these girls. These girls were somebody and to be called unwanted eye sore and poverty children is not true. I for one came from a family that had two business incomes. People stole my clothes but staff always got them back for me. I made the best of my stay and I loved it, cried for hours the day I graduated. There were unforgetable staff members there that cared. I found the good qualities in girls there and left being taught hard lessons and humorous ones. I got there being not good, and saw worse than I was. In fact a girl I’ll never forget KH took her life. If she would have worked the program, she didn’t though. Had nothing but good reviews for Beloit, and now I hear all the slander. I’m still a classy well to do CMA. Prison was in my future had it not been for Beloit. Grotzs, Soto, Harmons, Moores, Shumates and como teacher. You all added a little something that was heaven sent. Rogan and Huele as well. Thank you so much

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