Lafayette Clinic / Woodward Academy

The Lafayette Clinic was part of an ambitious plan by the State of Michigan to build a world-class mental health system in the 1950’s and 60’s. Located in downtown Detroit, the $3.68 million clinic would be at the forefront of new ways in treating psychiatric disorders. Rather than simply housing patients, the facility would serve as a training and research center for doctors and caregivers, with laboratories and classrooms. In addition to outpatient services, the clinic would 145 beds for inpatient treatment, including 25 beds for children.

Work began in 1953, and the first patients were admitted in 1955. Researchers tacked issues including high rates of schizophrenia in slum neighborhoods, social conditions leading up to the 1967 riot, and new treatments for depression, anxiety, and other disorders. In 1962, the state legislature began planning for a major expansion in mental health facilities, including a new research center at the Lafayette Clinic.

By the 1980’s, however, the state’s mental health services had become a target for budget cuts due to the expensive nature of the treatment. In 1991 the state began reducing the number of patients that Lafayette could see each year. Michigan’s governor at the time, Jon Engler, wanted the clinic’s $17 million a year budget used for community-based treatment programs, which he believed would be more effective. Care for the 37 residential and 700 outpatients could be provided for less money at other facilities. But staff and advocates argued against the closure, citing the important role the clinic played in treating some of the most difficult to treat disorders and the research being accomplished.

The state legislature appeared to agree, passing a mental health budget that funded Lafayette through 1992. Gov. Engler, however, vetoed the funding, leading to a court battle over the future of the clinic.

On October 15th, 1992, the courts ruled that the closing could move forward. In a surprise move, the state used the judgement to close the clinic immediately, with no warning to patients or caregivers, who were blindsided by the announcement. The closing of the clinic was chaotic and haphazard. Some patients barricaded themselves in their rooms, refusing to leave as State Troopers surrounded the building, preventing family members and staff from entering. Fights broke out as the remaining patients were escorted by staff members into waiting busses carrying their possessions in plastic bags.

In the wake of the closing, Detroit police officers reported an increase in calls to assist former patients, who often ended up in prison for minor crimes. Outpatient services were disrupted for almost a month and a half as Wayne State University scrambled to develop its own program. Several deaths were linked to the closing of the clinic, including one woman who had been scheduled for a neurological exam at the time of the closure but never received it because of lack of planning, and another patient who died by suicide after being transferred to a new doctor who was unable to access her records. Many patients simply disappeared. A year after the closing, about half of the clinic’s patients could not be found.

In 1994, Engler began advocating for the clinic to be turned into a boarding school for boys and girls, a plan that eventually grew into the Woodward Academy. The concept for the Woodward Academy was thought up by Melvin Smith, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Detroit. Smith was looking for ways to address the needs of children who were growing up in dangerous homes or on the streets.

The school received final approval to use the first floor of the clinic in the summer of 1996, opening without the boarding component. The upper floors of the building were locked up and unused. Within a few years the school had over 800 students.

In June of 2017 Woodward Academy closed, its charter revoked due to low test scores and financial problems. 520 students were forced to find new schools on short notice, 25 years after the last patients of the Lafayette Clinic had been forced to do the same.