Updated: Apr 30, 2019
This location holds a special place in my heart as it was one of the first abandoned locations I visited. It’s a very well-known location and has been visited by many before me. There are so many pieces about this hospital others have written but I still wanted to include it. Due to its popularity, however, it’s in very bad condition these days, absolutely covered in graffiti and falling apart. I had been researching this location for a while last year and decided that I would make the trip for my birthday. On a July afternoon my boyfriend and I had brunch with my daughter before dropping her off with her Grandma and Grandpa for the afternoon, and headed towards the decaying institution. We parked nearby and made our way through the woods to the former asylum. I even ended up returning again in the fall with my new camera to see what I wasn’t able to before and take some better photos.
In 1922 Congress allotted money for an institution to be opened to house those with disabilities and in 1925 it opened as “A Training School for the Mentally Retarded” before later changing its name. It served as a home for the mentally challenged and was riddled with controversy for most of the following 66 years it was open.
Situated on 300 acres with 22 buildings, the property is hidden back in the woods off of the highway and about 20 miles outside a major city. The thought at the time was that it would be better for those with disabilities to live in the country away from city life where it was peaceful, or it could just be that they wanted those that society didn’t understand or accept hidden away. The location of the facility later helped shield the atrocities that took place from the public eye and made it difficult for resident's family members to visit.
This seemed like the ideal treatment center at opening. There were plenty of amenities like a church and basketball courts. The administration building had medical offices complete with dental exam rooms and X-ray rooms. It was the goal for residents of the facility to get plenty of recreational time and the best medical treatment. Counselors taught residents to milk cows and tend to crops when the facility first opened.
The institution got great reviews in the beginning simply due to how good the concept was, plus the fact that the buildings and grounds were state of the art at the time. It was early on however that administration began to report under staffing and overcrowding issues that would just get worse with time.
During the mid-century the standards of care for the mentally disabled were changing. However, the government was suffering from a financial crisis and cut funding for education and recreation. This kept the institution from advancing with changes in medicine. Instead of opening new facilities that were up to date, the budget forced the continued use of an outdated facility with not enough staff or programs for the residents.
Then, on top of it, in the 1960s many who were not even mentally challenged were sent to live at the institution. People suffering from epilepsy, deaf people, people who couldn’t speak English, were all sent to live at the institution. It basically became a dumping ground for anyone society did not understand how to deal with or want to deal with. When an orphanage closed in 1974, twenty orphans were sent to the facility. A lot of these orphans began to function at lower levels due to the environment and the neglect they experienced.
In 1975 the director of the asylum estimated that 400 of the residents did not even really belong there. “At least 135 adults are ready for job training programs which could help them acquire skills, employment, and self-sufficiency outside the institution. But it has funds for only 50 on-the-Job placements off its grounds. If we had group homes and social services—we only have two social workers with 1,300 residents—we could return at least one-third of the residents to the community.” -R. Rimsky Atkinson.
Between the severe overcrowding and lack of funding the quality of care to residents suffered drastically. Vincent Gray, former mayor, visited as a student in the late 1960s and he called his experience “horrifying”. “I walked up to this fence, maybe a 20-foot fence around one of the dormitories, one of the cottages, And while I was standing there, a staff person brought about 15 or 20 women out of the building who had not a stitch of clothes on, and took a hose and just hosed them down. It one of the most dehumanizing things I had ever seen then, and frankly even now. And there was the moment when I said, ‘There’s gotta be a better way to do this.’”
In 1972 there were over 100 vacant positions. The administrators frequently lobbied for additional funding to be able to hire additional staff and provide better care for residents, because at this point they were getting the bare minimum of care. They were left in rooms with padded walls all day to sit and stumble around with no activities. A group called Camp Good Counsel would volunteer in the 1970s and reported seeing “multiple windows broken… it would be cold and drafty inside, even as the heat was pouring out of the radiators, the place reeked of urine, and you could hear moans of agony in the building. Many residents wear oversized diapers with ‘D.C. Government’ stenciled in ink on them. They wander about the large, barren rooms in bizarre, dazed postures.” Many staff members were underqualified and incompetent. Physical and sexual abuse were rampant. Newspaper articles reporting deaths at the facility were common.
In 1974 there were 17 resident deaths here, mostly from aspiration pneumonia caused by being fed while they were lying down. The staff were not properly trained on the dangers of feeding patients in a lying position, so they did it to save time as they had many residents to feed and not enough help.
The residents did not even get a proper funeral and burial. From basically the time it opened up until 1982 the dead were buried in a field nearby the facility. They were loaded into a bed of a truck and driven down to the field and buried. A metal disc was inserted in the ground between four plots showing who was buried there. There was a master list of the names of those who were buried there but it was lost at some point. There are said to be 387 names on this list but proper records were not kept and the number could be much higher. In 1989 the families of former residents purchased a headstone for the plot in memory of the residents laid to rest there. The field is now known as the Garden of Eternal Rest. It has been reported that erosion occurred at some point and the graves were moved.
The U.S. Park Police were the law enforcement overseeing the institution at the times of all these deaths. They were also understaffed and they were not properly trained to investigate these deaths. This is most likely part of the reason something was not done sooner about the conditions at the institution.
The first cases were brought before D.C. Superior Court alleging abuse in 1972. The investigation uncovered the institution was spending $18 per day per resident, when the national standard was over $30 per day per resident. When you’re spending half of what you should be, the quality suffers. Families continued to gather evidence against the facility. The Commissioner on Social Services at the time admitted there was a problem at the institution, but they couldn’t just move residents out of the facility because where would they go? The families of residents continued to collect evidence.
In 1976 the families of residents filed a lawsuit which was joined by the Department of Justice in 1978. Because of this approximately 1100 residents were relocated out of the institution and in to group homes. The lawsuit accused staff of locking residents wearing only diapers in empty rooms and tying them to urine-soaked mattresses. They stated residents were choking to death from being fed while restrained.
THE LACK OF COMPREHENSIVE HABILITATION PROGRAMS TO MEET INDIVIDUAL NEEDS OF RESIDENTS; THE UNSAFE, UNSANITARY, AND UNPLEASANT CONDITION OF THE FOREST HAVEN FACILITIES; INADEQUATE STAFFING, LACK OF TRAINING, AND ABUSE OF RESIDENTS BY STAFF; INADEQUATE MEDICAL, DENTAL, AND MENTAL HEALTH CARE AND NUTRITION; INADEQUATE RECORD-KEEPING; LACK OF AFTER-CARE AND REHABILITATION PROGRAMS AND VOCATIONAL TRAINING FOR FORMER RESIDENTS; AND INADEQUATE FUNDING.
– Allegations in 1976 lawsuit
On June 14, 1978 the Judge finally ordered a structured closing of the facility. The residents were to be relocated to community group homes over time and no new residents were to be accepted in. In the meantime, conditions were ordered to improve. The decree would also oversee the improvement of the mental health system as a whole. Finally, the suffering was over, or so everyone thought. The population fell to 1,300 in the late 1970s after the conclusion of the case.
Between 1989 and 1990 ten deaths occurred out of 252 residents. The institution had deteriorated so badly that Medicaid funding was cut. The facility lost $22 million of their budget due to this cut. Between being underfunded to begin with and the cutbacks, the facility had a bare bones budget. On top of it, the 1978 decree that ordered the close of the institution also just so happened to include that no repairs or upgrades could be made to the property, so the buildings were in horrible condition. The facility was falling apart in every possible way.
In 1989 attorneys put pressure on the judge to force the facility closed. It had already been 10 years since the order was given to close, yet the facility was still open and providing terrible care in an unfit environment. Then, that same year, the Federal government asked that the district be held in contempt for not providing better care for the remaining residents in the facility. In January of 1990 a Justice Department lawyer attempted to go visit the institution but was not allowed in by staff, he had to have a Federal Judge compel them to cooperate. The resulting report noted that only two physicians were overseeing the 232 residents at the institution, and one of those physicians was found medically incompetent two years prior.
In April of 1990 the asylum was given until October of 1991 to fully shut down and close its doors for good. The goal was for 39 residents to be relocated to new homes every three months and failing to reach that goal meant a $10,000 fine with an additional $100 per resident per day fine, which would go up to $200 per resident per day after 30 days.
In April of 1991 only 91 residents remained and it is said that they had it the worst out of everyone. There was basically no money left in the budget at this point, therefore very little staff to supply care. Due to neglect things like bowel obstructions, aspiration pneumonia, rashes, and muscle atrophy occurred at an all-time high before closing.
The final 15 residents at the facility were packed up and moved out in late September of 1991. On October 14th 1991 the hospital officially closed its doors for good. It sadly turned out that abuse would be just as prevalent in group homes that residents were transferred to.
This was one asylum of many of its time. These abandoned institutions are all over the country, and world for that matter, though many have been demolished and others have demolitions planned. This one in particular was on the list of the top 10 worst cases of institutional abuse in the United States.
The facilities were used briefly over the years for other purposes including a youth detention center. There is still one next door today. The buildings were never properly dealt with, records and equipment litters the entire facility at this point, along with graffiti of course. It’s like everyone just left on October 14th, 1991 and never looked back.
You can find rooms filled with what should be confidential health information of past residents strewn all over the floor. Furniture, medical supplies, names of residents on the walls, you name it, all still remains. We stumbled across a room full of computers, I even read that at one point they were still operational before being smashed or ruined by the elements. It is still so weird for me to think about how someone could be driving down the highway next to it without a clue of its existence, not knowing such a massive facility with such a dark history stands rotting in the middle of the woods next to them. As far as I have been able to find there are no plans for demolition or renovation, so there it sits still tucked away from society to this day.
Written by Sarah Healy
First Published 01/17/2019
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