The jury of a federal court in Bridgeport, Conn. ruled in favor of Gilead Community Services Friday, Oct. 15. The court found that the Town of Cromwell violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, and awarded almost $5.2 million in punitive and compensatory damages to Gilead. The private non-profit organization, which was founded by Wesleyan students in 1968, serves individuals and families with mental health needs throughout Middlesex County through services like outpatient treatment, residential treatment, apartment services, and case management.
The jury decision marks the end of a case originating in 2015 when Gilead purchased a home at 5 Reimann Drive in Cromwell with the intention of establishing a place of recovery for people with mental health disabilities, and found itself facing concerns from Cromwell residents.
“Unfortunately, from that point, a number of neighbors expressed significant concerns,” Gilead Chief Executive Officer Dan Osborne said. “The power of stigma and prejudice took over, and the leadership of the town basically initiated a campaign to prevent this house from staying there and prevent these people with mental health disabilities from being able to live in that home.”
Though the town eventually succeeded in forcing Gilead to close the group home, for Osborne, the jury decision makes a clear statement that the Town of Cromwell was discriminatory in its efforts to reach that outcome.
“We’re obviously extremely pleased with the jury’s verdict,” Osborne said. “For us, this is a resounding and just verdict that makes sure…that the story that played out back in 2015 with this program doesn’t end with stigma, prejudice, and hate winning the day. We closed the program, that’s true, but this verdict sends a message to towns, including the Town of Cromwell, that this behavior is discriminatory.”
Dean for Academic Advancement Laura Patey, who currently serves as the Chair of Gilead’s Board of Directors, explained that the situation leading up to the decision from the federal court proved challenging for the organization.
“It was really a very challenging time for all of us because we recognized that from our perspective, there was clearly discrimination, and it impacted individual clients,” Patey said. “It became more important to us to be a voice for folks who are often voiceless, and the work with the fair housing legal team was enormously helpful in sort of understanding the impact of challenging a situation that we felt really was a case of discrimination.”
Patey also emphasized the importance of the jury’s decision in establishing a precedent on fair housing for those with disabilities.
“For us, the jury finding of discrimination and retaliation on all accounts was one that really sets a precedent,” Patey said. “Here’s this relatively small nonprofit in Middletown, Connecticut that has had a federal jury finding that says in towns, you can’t discriminate against individuals with disabilities.”
Gilead was founded in 1968 by Myron Kinberg ’67, Matthew Lamstein ’68, and Gregory Wrobel ’69 when the three students worked with a faculty advisor to ask the University to provide a house at 453 High St. that became known as “Gilead House.” The house served as a home for seven Wesleyan students and seven former patients from the Connecticut Valley Hospital to live together.
“They just lived life together,” Osborne said. “There were no clinical services, it was just about providing supports and guidance as they were reentering society.”
The University’s connection to Gilead has continued over the years in various ways, including offering student internships with the organization, as well as courses with Gilead through the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship.
“We’ve definitely stayed closely connected to Wesleyan,” Osborne said. “Wesleyan has had different volunteer groups that have provided service and support to Gilead…. I’ve taken on several different interns from Wesleyan to work on various projects or to support me in my role, which has been really great. We’ve had pretty consistent Board representation, so right now it’s Laura [Patey], but we’ve had other members of the Wesleyan community serve on Gilead’s board as a volunteer board member.”
For Osborne, Gilead’s origins at Wesleyan are an important part of the organization’s history and can serve as a reciprocal relationship.
“I love the fact that Gilead has its roots in Wesleyan,” Osborne said. “I think Wesleyan is a tremendous part of the Middletown community, and so to have Gilead connected in that way is great and I think it’s equally helpful for Wesleyan students, as they’re engaging in the community, to know about Gilead, to know about the connection that we have…. We want to make sure Wesleyan students understand that history and those that are interested are encouraged to get involved in some way and support the agency.”
Moving forward, Gilead will continue to support the mental health needs of Middlesex County residents.
“Our goals have always been to provide support for individuals to increase levels of independence as they’re on their journey to recovery,” Patey said. “And so we’ll continue to provide an array of services and really try to forge deep connections in the communities in which we have programs and services.”
Patey also expressed the importance of current Wesleyan students learning about and recognizing the history and connections between the University and Gilead, particularly after the jury’s verdict.
“I just think it’s so important for students here now to understand the connections, because the connections and ties between Wesleyan and Gilead are for the duration of Gilead’s existence, and I feel like this should be a proud moment for students who are here to know that students who were here 50 years ago, identified a need and took action, and that action has a ripple effect,” Patey said. “And so 50 years later…having a decision like this, which had its origins in that strong connection, is something that I think if Wesleyan students knew and understood, could take pride in too.”
Jiyu Shin can be reached at email@example.com.