Prairie Productions in Hettinger making documentary

A federal court decision 30 years ago allows Zach Lohnes and others with similar disabilities to work and live in Hettinger today.

Zach Lohnes and Brittany Anderson boot up the computer so Zach can do one of his favorite things – check out what’s going on outside of Hettinger on the web.

Posted August 30, 2010


Record Editor


A federal court decision 30 years ago allows Zach Lohnes and others with similar disabilities to work and live in Hettinger today. Prairie Publications was in Hettinger recently to hear Lohnes personal story. Executive Producer Kim Stenehjem led the three-person film crew.

“It is good to know that you can stay close to your family, have a good job and a nice place to stay,” explained Stenehjem. “It’s a good story.”

Stenehjem said it wasn’t long ago when a group home in the neighborhood would have been cause for major dissension in the area.

“There was so much fear in 1982,” she said. “It is satisfying to see how completely group home are accepted now, and how everyone is accepting and all are part of the community.”

When the law changed, the homes where considered “sheltered homes,” a place where those with disabilities could just live together and be watched over.

Now these individuals are accepted into the communities they living in – have “real” jobs where they “have real earning potential, and get job benefits like other employees,” she said.

Each case is very individualized, and is a “Matter of how to find opportunities to fulfill their hopes and dreams,” said Stenehjem.

Brittany Anderson, who works at Able, loves her job.

“It is a great place to work,” she said. “And always something new every day.”

For Zach, he enjoys surfing the net, and when the filming began had found a pow-wow to watch and take part in.

“He really likes the computer,” said Anderson.

Programs such as this open the opportunities for him to be able to be online, and involves him in the world outside Hettinger as well.

Stenehjem became involved in the process and the changes over many years because of a family member.

“My aunt had a child who had Scarlet Fever as a small child, and seemed to have learning disabilities,” she said. The aunt refused to institutionalize the child and continued to fight the system. As it turned out, the child had no learning disabilities, he was deaf.


Changing the law

It wasn’t always that way in North Dakota. On Sept. 26, 1980, an association representing six mentally challenged individuals filed a class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota against the state. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief regarding treatment and conditions in the Grafton State School facilities. Prior to a trial, on Nov. 4, 1981, the court entered a consent decree in which the state agreed to improve the conditions in the school. However, the state failed to comply and a trial was held in early 1982.

District Court Judge Bruce M. Van Sickle came down hard against the state. He entered a broad permanent injunction based on violation of the plaintiff’s due process rights, rights to privacy and free associations, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and state law. The court also found that North Dakota spent less per resident than any other state and there were significant problems related to the residents’ treatment. The order required the state to provide individualized habilitation plans for residents, provide appropriate food, shelter and medical care, and provide an environment that assured privacy rights for residents. The decision was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

It wasn’t until the 1900s and a couple of more court hearings later that a court-appointed Panel of Masters conducted a hearing and made a final report to the district court. In 1995, Van Sickle adopted the panel’s finding that the state had made significant improvements and no longer violated the federal rights of the mentally challenged residents.

“Kim (Stenehjem) inquired about doing the project and I sent her a short profile on each of our employees,” Jones said. “She picked one person from Bowman and one person from Hettinger.”

After spending Tuesday morning in Hettinger, the film crew than made the short trek to Bowman.

Filming is almost completed, and the program is scheduled to air in November.


EDDIE HIBBS III, Pioneer Publisher and Editor, contributed greatly to this article.