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My great-uncle's wife was committed to Camarillo State Hospital in California for something over 30 years, until her death in 1967. She has no descendants. I have become very interested in this woman's sad story (it begins in an orphanage), and wonder if anyone has had success in getting information from a mental hospital now closed. The California Department of State Hospitals has a contact office for Camarillo, and I have written to them but received no answer.

On the State website, on the page "State Hospitals - Patient Information Requests - FAQ," readers are referred to the laws regarding release of information. I see that researchers with an approved Human Subjects plan can receive access, I see legal forms for committing a person, and there's a third section on "Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), 45 CFR 164 Subpart E". So, I have so far not been able to figure out what the rules are for requesting information.

Has anyone been successful in such a quest? I read a suggestion that a researcher request copies of minutes from the Board of the institution, but I hardly think they'll send me 30+ years of minutes on the chance that my great-aunt will be mentioned.

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    Just to clarify: the page I found says that for Camarillo, the records are held by two different agencies. Presumably you want the mental health division, whose records are held by the Department of State Hospitals - Metropolitan LA in Norwalk. Did you contact the appropriate division? P.S. - a belated welcome to G&FH.SE! glad you could join us. – Jan Murphy Jul 29 '15 at 17:01
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    You know, it's been a while and of course I've lost track of my request. I will try again at the Norwalk address. Can't hurt to make a second request. And thanks for the welcome! I'm glad I found this new resource -- – ewormuth Jul 29 '15 at 18:05
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    They may not be able to give much to a third-party requester (not the patient or patient's next-of-kin). "Unfortunately, due to state and federal confidentiality laws, information that can be disclosed is strictly limited. In most cases, these confidentiality laws prevail over any request for patient records from an entity, including family member, other than the patient him/herself, even if the patient is deceased." Some of us would be happy just to have the dates our family members were patients, but in many states, even that limited amount of information is not allowed. – Jan Murphy Jul 29 '15 at 22:10
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    Yes, I don't know when she was committed there (some time between 1930 and 1940), but she shows up on the 1940 census as a patient there. I just wish I could honor her life by knowing her story and sharing it, if appropriate. Camarillo was a hell-hole in the years she was there. – ewormuth Jul 30 '15 at 0:02
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Who Holds The Records?

Some records from California State Hospitals can be accessed online. Ancestry's database California, State Hospital Records, 1856-1923 have records from the California State Archives consisting of these record sets:

Stockton Hospital Commitment Registers, 1856–1934. MF8:10. 34 volumes. Dept. of Mental Hygiene—Hospitals. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Sonoma Hospital Case Books and Descriptions, 1885–1920. F8:11. 10 volumes. Dept. of Mental Hygiene—Hospitals. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Mendocino Hospital Commitment Registers, 1893–1923. MF8:11. 6 volumes. Dept. of Mental Hygiene—Hospitals. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

The California State Archives' Family History Resources page says (as of 13 December 2017) they have:

Mental Health Records* 1856–1934

Records may include patient registers and case files for Agnews (located in Santa Clara), DeWitt (located in Auburn), Mendocino, Modesto, Sonoma and Stockton State Hospitals. Some indexes are available.

In this list, there are links for DeWitt, Mendocino, Modesto, Sonoma and Stockton State Hospitals. If this listing is up-to-date, that suggests that the records for Camarillo have not been transferred to the California State Archives since you wrote your question in July of 2015.

This brings us back to where you started, the FAQ at The California Department of State Hospitals page at CA.gov.

State Hospitals - Patient Information Requests - FAQ lists where to request records. According to the table on that page, the records for:

Camarillo State Hospital/Developmental Center - Mental Health designation

are held at

Department of State Hospitals - Metropolitan LA 11400 S. Norwalk Blvd. Norwalk, CA 90650 Phone: 562-863-7011 Fax: 562-864-4560

Via Archive Grid we can see that some records were retained at California State University, Channel Islands (which took over the site when Camarillo was closed). The entry says:

100 linear ft.

The collection contains artifacts, documents, newspaper articles, photographs, and oral histories relating to the operation of the hospital and its relationship with staff, patients, and the community. In 1932, 1500 acres located within the City of Camarillo, County of Ventura were acquired to establish a state hospital. The hospital at one point housed 7000 patients and over 700 staff and upon completion, was the largest mental hospital in the world. CHS officially closed in June of 1993, but it was acquired by the CSU in 1996, as the first university in the County of Ventura. Access to collection restricted to documents and oral histories.

Finding aid available in the University Archives and on the website.

Links to related resources (corrected as of 13 December 2017):

The collections page includes a link to a finding aid which describes what materials held in the collection, and has contact information for the University Archivist.

Privacy Concerns

This post from Judy G. Russell on her blog The Legal Genealogist gives a general overview of the problem of records access from institutions: Breakthrough for medical genealogy (posted Apr 8, 2013).

She writes:

[T]he federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)... adopted a new set of rules earlier this year, effective just two weeks ago, that opens medical records 50 years after the patient’s death.

This is significant because your patient died in 1967. If the rule that was passed in 2013 has not been changed since then, that means any records that might exist about your patient are now open (or will be in 2018, depending on how the rolling window is applied). This is according to Federal Law, as Russell points out -- any state law that applies must also be considered.

As you say, it isn't easy to determine whether California is following the Federal law or whether it has more restrictive rules of its own, but you might be able to deduce whether your patient's records will be open by contacting the California State Archives and asking them what the rolling window is for the records becoming archival and open to the public -- California law would apply to all the records they hold as well as the records for Camarillo. You can also look at what records Ancestry has available for the other hospitals to see what kinds of records might survive, even though those records may be earlier than the date range you need. Familiarizing yourself with the types of records and what they are called makes it easier to make a detailed request, rather than asking for "anything you might have about my patient of interest".

General Information about the Hospital

If you can't find commitment registers, case books, personal descriptions, or release records that show her name, what next?

An exact match for the phrase "Camarillo State Hospital" returns 30 more entries in Archive Grid. Many of these refer to the children with developmental disabilities, but it's worth looking over the list in case your patient is in one of the patient photos which are linked to the catalog descriptions. Check public and University Digital Collections for other photos and ephemera.

General records about the hospital, such as reports about the patient population, can put the information you have in context.

  • Asylum Projects is a wiki/message board where volunteers collect information about asylums and other institutions. Most of the links on their article Camarillo State Hospital are broken, but it has photos and videos.
  • Genealogy Bank's blog posted an article "Researching Ancestors Who Were Committed to Asylums, Using Old Newspapers" by Gena Philibert-Ortega (May 6, 2013) Newspapers may help you establish timelines for when your patient was committed -- use those dates as guidelines for searching county court records. Even if only indexes are available, and the records are closed to you because you aren't a direct descendant, it still helps you fill in the timeline of her life.

Further reading:

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