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Forest Haven Asylum – One of the most deadly institutions in the United States

David Goran

Hidden in forested acreage away from the busy city center, Forest Haven was a live-in facility for children and adults with Intellectual Disability (ID) located in Laurel, Maryland and operated by the District of Columbia.

The designers of the facility had plans for a peaceful place and the compound was placed in an idyllic setting over 20 miles away from the city center and from the stresses of urban life.

The Forest Haven Asylum first opened in 1925 as the “District Training School for the Mentally Retarded,” and it was widely hailed as a forward-thinking institution, part of a progressive movement sweeping Europe and North America at the time, setting the standard for other states to follow.

Twenty-two buildings were situated on a 200-acre property in Laurel, Maryland. At the time, most of the buildings were referred to as “cottages” and had names like Magnolia, Maple, Pine, Spruce, Hawthorne, Elm, Oak, Poplar, Hemlock, Holly, and Dogwood.The property featured a theater, gym, several basketball courts, baseball field, cafeteria, and a recreation center.

As population within the walls grew larger and larger, patients would wander empty, padded rooms unfit for any type of living as previously planned.

One of the most deadly institutions in the United States. Author: Forsaken Fotos – CC BY 2.0

One of the most deadly institutions in the United States. Author: Forsaken Fotos – CC BY 2.0

In the 1960s, funding was drastically cut for this institution, and with recreation and athletic programs dropping nearly out of the picture, residents began to suffer. Many residents spent their days pacing empty, padded rooms – staff members were under-qualified, and some of the doctors were declared medically incompetent by the state of Maryland. There are also accounts of rampant physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the facility.

The District treated Forest Haven like a dark secret nobody wanted to discuss. For decades, reports of resident abuse and neglect went ignored.

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When the facility first opened its doors in 1925, it was known as the “District Training School for the Mentally Retarded“ and it was used as a children’s development center as well as a mental institution. Author: Forsaken Fotos – CC BY 2.0

 

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The Forest Haven facilities grew to a compound with over 22 buildings spread over 250 acres. Author: Forsaken Fotos – CC BY 2.0

Throughout the 1970s, the families of abused residents continued to build cases against Forest Haven by tracking patient mistreatment and turning their findings over to the Justice Department.

A lawsuit filed by families of patients at Forest Haven in 1976 and joined by the Department of Justice in 1978 resulted in the relocation of many residents to group homes (about 1,100 residents were transferred to smaller and better-supervised group homes).

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By the 1960s, even people with treatable disabilities were categorized as “retards” and sent to live at Forest Haven. Author: Forsaken Fotos – CC BY 2.0

Between 1989 and 1991, prior to the facility’s closure, the Justice Department began to monitor deaths from aspiration pneumonia, a condition that can be caused by improper feeding procedures (e.g. feeding a patient who is lying down).

Many of the patients who died were buried in a mass grave, unmarked until a headstone was erected by some of the patients’ families. Some of the graves have been uncovered by erosion.

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Throughout the 1970s, the families of abused residents continued to build cases against Forest Haven by tracking patient mistreatment. After years of medical incompetence and several deaths from aspiration pneumonia, the hospital was closed in 1991 by order of a federal judge. Author: Forsaken Fotos – CC BY 2.0

Forest Haven finally closed on October 14, 1991, by order of a federal judge, 66 years after it opened and 15 years after demented details were disclosed in lawsuits. Today, the site is abandoned and is guarded by United States Park Police.

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Today, the abandoned asylum is a magnet for young ghost-hunters, arsonists, and vandals. Author: Forsaken Fotos – CC BY 2.0

Many hazardous items such as asbestos have been removed, but much of the equipment, including desks, beds, toys, and medical records remain.

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Twenty-five years after shuttering its doors, it sits as a monument to a failed policy of institutionalization, a decrepit reminder of decades of abuse and mistreatment.