When Forest Haven Asylum opened in 1925, it was exactly that–a haven and refuge for those in need, surrounded by a lush forest. The asylum was open for mentally impaired individuals of any age, as part of an effort to ease the burden of supporting a disabled person. It was believed that if families surrendered their in-need relatives, they would flourish in an environment that was made to complement their specific, and often intensive, personal needs. The asylum was built in Laurel, Maryland, approximately 20 miles outside of Washington D.C., meant to minimize inmate exposure to the rush of city life.
Construction on an administration building began in 1938. Two years later, then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the dedication ceremony on March 8, 1940. The 30,000 square foot building boasted 38 hospital beds, 2 fracture beds, 18 cribs, an operating room, lab space, an x-ray room, a dentist's office, and a psychiatrist’s laboratory.
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The initial concept for Forest Haven included the cultivation of optimism. Mentally ill patients would not suffer the stigma of being viewed as irreparable, broken people but would instead reside peacefully among friends and dedicated caregivers. 22 buildings and 200 acres of woods guaranteed that Forest Haven would be more than an idea; it would be a vision of the future. Each building was known as a “cottage” and given a pleasant name, such as Magnolia, Pine, Oak, and Hawthorne. In addition, forward-thinking catapulted the asylum into a class of its own; patients would not simply stare into space between treatments, they would become part of a farming community. Eventually, Forest Haven’s residents milked cows and tended crops. They also received adequate exercise and time outside in nature.
And for a while, everything worked.
But soon, the facility would become more of a madhouse. By the 1950s, many of the asylum’s “state of the art” amenities were outdated. Financial problems prevented the kind of advancement needed to keep up with newer medical practices. Most of the extracurricular programs and recreational comforts were discontinued. A decade later, Forest Haven was no longer a utopian society, but a place of disposal for the troubled, the unwanted, and the misdiagnosed.
A surge in population forced staff to focus on maintaining order instead of rehabilitation. The problem continued to snowball to such an extent that many people who were not mentally challenged, but suffering other ailments (blindness, deafness, epilepsy, etc.) were thrown into the asylum and classified as slow or underdeveloped. And as Forest Haven became more and more understaffed, abuse began rippling through the system.
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Benefits that had once been standard were significantly reduced; unqualified personnel filled the staffing void. This left many patients to wander the rooms and halls aimlessly and usually unattended. Some of the doctors were even declared incompetent by the state of Maryland.
By the 1970s, claims of abuse were rampant. It was determined that many of Forest Haven’s “patients” did not belong there or were not impaired enough to warrant institutionalization. Staff frustration mounted, causing some workers to lash out and beat the residents. Abuse claims eventually became deaths. An untold number of patients died at Forest Haven—figures are often spoken about in the hundreds. Often, the bodies of the deceased were whisked to a morgue in the basement before receiving a nameless burial on the grounds.
On February 23, 1976, a class action lawsuit was filed by the victims’ families. In the case, Evans, et al. vs. Washington, plaintiff Betty Evans swore before Judge Pratt that her daughter, Joy Evans, had been subjected to inhumane treatment. Some of that treatment had resulted in scratches, chipped teeth, cuts, bruises all over her body, and on one occasion, a raw, painful back, which stemmed from being restrained on urine-soaked bed sheets. Joy Evans died at Forest Haven in July 1976 at the age of 18.
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Two years later, on June 14, 1978, the case between the plaintiffs and the city was settled. As part of the settlement, Forest Haven would be permanently closed, and its residents would be moved to community group homes. But in the meantime, they would receive proper “medical, dental, and health-related services.”
Soon, word came that many of Forest Haven’s deaths were likely being caused by aspiration pneumonia. The condition resulted from patients being fed while lying down, causing their epiglottis to malfunction and allowing food to drop into their lungs instead of their stomach, essentially choking them to death. Eight years after the settlement, Forest Haven was still open, although its population had been greatly decreased, to under 300 residents.
In July 1986, the District of Columbia Association of Retarded Citizens entered a proposal to train Forest Haven's staff on proper feeding procedures. The proposal was rejected due to a lack of funds. A mixture of indifference and ignorance spread among the workers, and the problems continued in spite of the 1976 decree.
In the early morning hours of August 8, 1989, police were summoned to Forest Haven to investigate the presence of a dead body. When they arrived, they found 22-year old Arthur “Arkie” Harris lying on his right side in a fetal position. He was wearing only a hospital gown and white socks with red stripes. There was dried blood on his mouth. The investigation concluded that Harris had died from complications of aspiration pneumonia.
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Between May 1989 and March 1991, the Justice Department had finally begun to track the deaths at Forest Haven, while the institution was in the process of closing. During that two-year period before the asylum finally shut down, at least 10 residents, including Harris, had died from aspiration pneumonia.
On October 14, 1991, Forest Haven’s doors were closed for good. The total death count will never be known, due in part to the quick practice of hauling bodies to the morgue and then burying them en masse outside. Before the asylum closed, the families of several former residents purchased a large granite headstone to memorialize those who died there. It sits in a field known as the Garden of Eternal Rest.
Today, only the remnants of Forest Haven are left. It is patrolled by a team of security guards to keep photographers and curiosity seekers from entering. It stands as a haunting reminder of its troubled history.