Home Hospitals

Forest Haven Asylum: Abandoned Home for the Abandoned

Maple Cottage at Forest Haven

Welcome to Forest Haven, one of the most deadly institutions in the United States. This asylum for the mentally ill was built not far the nation’s capital in 1925, hidden in forested acreage away from the busy city center. The campus was beautiful, however care and treatment would deteriorate rapidly as the city’s budget tightened. Under-staffing issues were common, and for decades reports of resident abuse and neglect went ignored.

The District treated Forest Haven like a dark secret nobody wanted to discuss. A combination of budget cuts and lawsuits eventually forced the institution to close in 1991 after 80 years. But before Forest Haven was shuttered, hundreds of residents died and thousands more deteriorated while enduring a horrific quality of life.


cover photo: Maple Cottage

photos courtesy Dino D’Addario

[ recommended background listening ]


Forest Haven campus (courtesy Bing)

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When the facility first opened in 1925, it was known as the “District Training School for the Mentally Retarded.” The compound was placed in an idyllic setting over 20 miles away from the city center.

It was hailed as a forward-thinking institution, part of a progressive movement sweeping Europe and North America at the time.

At the time, doctors believed the setting designed at Forest Haven would satisfy the period concept that the mentally ill – who overwhelmed their families and languished at home – would prosper if they could live, receive treatment, and specialized training away from the stresses of urban life.

The designers of the facility had plans for a peaceful place. Twenty two buildings were situated on a 200-acre forested property in Laurel, Maryland (map). Buildings were referred to as “cottages” and most were given bucolic names: Dogwood, Elm, Hawthorne, Hemlock, Holly, Magnolia, Maple, Oak, Pine, Poplar, and Spruce.

[ S-I reader Mike Perry has assembled an 18-page .pdf of Administration Building facts, history, and photos (warning: 23.3 Mb). Thank you Mike! ]

Original Forest Haven site map (courtesy Mike Perry)
Original Forest Haven site map (courtesy Mike Perry)

The main administration building was designed in the classic institution architecture of the era and contained dental examination rooms, doctors offices, and x-ray rooms. Adjacent structures contained various evaluation facilities as well as rooms for electroshock, hydrotherapy, and post-dosage observation.

vintage photos courtesy Mike Perry

[ Jump to S-I’s Forest Haven Facility Map & Breakdown ]

Forest Haven’s amenities sounded appealing on paper. The property featured a theater, gym, several basketball courts, baseball field, cafeteria, and a recreation center.

Behind the administration building was the chapel, which had large stained-glass windows and could seat 200. Inside were a decorative pulpit, an organ, and rows of pews.

Multiple common areas were located around the landscaped grounds. Exercise and recreation were frequent stated goals.

In the early days, counselors taught residents to milk cows and tend to crops.



Reviews at opening were glowing, drawing positive conclusions on the concept rather than the execution. The facility was also described as “state of the art,” an estimation likely based on the cost of construction rather than patient results.

Forest Haven administrators reported overcrowding and under-staffing concerns early and often – issues which would plague the facility its entire operational life.

We only have two social workers for 1,300 residents.

– R. Rimsky Atkinson, Forest Haven Director

A lack of funding and stifling of newer treatments kept Forest Haven from evolving with modern medicine. When the District began suffering from its mid-century financial crisis, all education and recreation programs at the facility were terminated.

By the 1960’s political attitudes toward the institution model had changed. Hundreds of people with treatable learning disabilities were lazily categorized as “retards” and sent to Forest Haven.

Thus valuable limited resources of the asylum were being directed toward capacity rather than rehabilitation.

A plaque by the entryway to the administration building reads “Yet while I live, let me not live in vain.”

Some of the worst cases featured those patients who were not mentally retarded at all. The deaf, dyslexic, illiterate, epileptic, and non-native speakers were just some of the those misunderstood by society or just too much for their families to handle.

Admin building main entrance
Admin building main entrance

When a nearby orphanage closed in 1974, twenty orphans were relocated to Forest Haven. Rather than find alternate orphanage lodgings, the children were re-classified from “orphan” to “retarded.”

In the most unfortunate of self-fulfilling prophecies, some of them started to function at a retarded level due to their treatment.

In 1975 the asylum director estimated 400 of the residents “don’t belong here” and admitted the facility contributes to the handicap of retardation.

One-third of the residents could benefit from training activities rather than the babysitting we give them now.”

Current D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray visited Forest Haven as a psychology student in the late 1960s. He called his experience “horrifying” and “the most dehumanizing thing I had ever seen.”

By the middle of the 20th century the United States was moving away from institutions. Deregulation of the mental health industry would see each become fossils of a 19th century treatment model.

The exceptions were places like Forest Haven, where a district faced a shrinking budgets and was desperate for care and treatment facilities. With no funding to build new care centers, some cities were forced to use the institutions well beyond their expiration dates.

Forest Haven admin building, third floor
Admin building, third floor

Until the 1970s, there were few alternatives to institutions such as Forest Haven.

[ John Kennedy Jr. was the son of a retired district cafeteria worker and committed to Forest Haven in 1962 at age 9 because he was “impossible to control, mentally slow, and suffered from seizures.” Shortly after he arrived, his mother noticed “all of his teeth were knocked out.” On a following visit she found him standing naked against a wall with other patients, being blasted by an employee with a hose for “unruly behavior.” ]


Conditions & Under-staffing

Forest Haven Curley Building
Curley Building

Forest Haven utilized a program based on concepts in operant conditioning. To reinforce positive behavior patients were awarded tokens, which could later be cashed in for candy, toys, or “outside time.”

Social interaction was allowed in the common areas; curfew was at 11.

Male patients between ages 10-24 who were least-capable of caring for themselves spent their time in the Curley Building, a massive 68,000 square-foot building completed in 1971. (pictured above & below)

Curley Building dayroom
Inside a Curley Building dayroom (courtesy Mike Perry)

Those who were toilet trained and could dress and feed themselves eventually “graduated” to the Poplar Cottage, one of the five original dormitories. The reward at Poplar was greater independence and less supervision – albeit in older and even less-staffed facilities.

Forest Haven Curley Building
Curley Building

[ Click here to read the story of Forest Haven resident Mattie Hoge ]

Just how understaffed was Forest Haven? A 1972 report found the facility had over 100 vacant positions resulting from Congressional cutbacks and District job freezes. Successful rehabilitation and training programs require specialized staffing Forest Haven didn’t have the budget to accommodate.

Congress only built Forest Haven in order to exile people with mental retardation from the nation’s capital and hide them in a rural area.

Tony Records, Developmental Disabilities Authority

The frustration was not lost on the institution’s administrators, who shared the concerns and routinely lobbied for additional funding.

According to Forest Haven director R. Rimsky Atkinson, at least 50 of the asylum’s school-age children who had lesser learning disabilities could have lived at home, but did not because city schools lacked adequate educational programs for them.

Said Atkinson, At least 135 adults are ready for job training programs which could help them acquire skills, employment, and self-sufficiency outside the institution.”

But,” he lamented, Forest Haven 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.”

Abuse cases against the District for the poor treatment of those in the institution were first brought to the D.C. Superior Court in 1972. The case lasted several years and uncovered chronic mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the facility.

The case also revealed Forest Haven was spending $18 per patient per day in care while the national average cost per patient per day at the time was just over $30. The lower budget, prosecutors argued, resulted in a lower quality of care to District patients.

D.C. Commissioner of Social Services Barbara Burke-Tatum acknowledged Forest Haven was understaffed.

There’s obviously a lot of patchwork repairs. I’m not going to argue, it’s a bad environment. But we can’t move people out and just put them anywhere… We have to make sure that they will get care at least as good as they’re getting at Forest Haven.”

We’ll have to learn to do more with less

– Barbara Burke-Tatum, D.C. Commissioner of Social Services

The common denominator was the lack of money; while the eventual closing of Forest Haven was a step in the right direction, it didn’t solve the underlying problem.

The continued abuse in group homes after institutions closed only underscores that point.

Forest Haven Elm Cottage
Elm Cottage

photos courtesy Dino D’Addario

[ Click here for list of former Forest Haven residents who later perished in group homes ]


Decade of Litigation

Forest Haven Elm Cottage from the Chapel
Elm Cottage from the Chapel

The fortunes of Forest Haven would change in 1968 with the admittance of 8 year-old Joy, the dysfunctional daughter of Betty and Harold Evans.

When Betty and Harold admitted Joy to Forest Haven in 1968, they had good intentions. In an interview Harold admitted there were few options for a mentally ill 8 year-old who required 24-hour care.

The school system had rejected her and private schools were too expensive. Both he and his wife worked, so it was impossible for them to care for Joy on their own.

At first glance Forest Haven appeared to offer the ideal solution to give Joy the 24-hour care she needed. It wasn’t until her parents visited her at the facility they realized the poor conditions and took action. When they found Joy tied to a bed in a cell behind bars, the wheels of reform started turning.

Forest Haven article 1976
Forest Haven article dated 1976 (courtesy Mike Perry)

Joy’s parents spearheaded the group which filed the Federal class-action lawsuit on February 23rd, 1976. The suit detailed the abuses at Forest Haven and challenged a range of items:

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

SONY DSCJoy died at Forest Haven in 1976 from aspiration pneumonia, a swelling or infection of the lungs caused by food, saliva, or vomit.

In short, Joy choked on her own food as patients were often fed laying down (this is also part of the reason surgery patients are instructed to not eat at least four hours before an operation).

Joy Evans was 17.

Once committed to Forest Haven, the only way out is to die.

– Betty Evans

Forest Haven youth found dead 1974
In the 1970’s, articles reporting deaths at Forest Haven were commonplace. (courtesy Mike Perry)

The Evans trial would last for years, and during the litigation conditions at Forest Haven marginally improved only after repeated court orders and threats of revocations of Medicaid payments from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).

Forest Haven Magnolia Cottage
Magnolia Cottage

Staff members locked dozens of residents, naked except for adult-sized diapers, in rooms stripped of furniture other than wooden benches

– Allegations in 1976 lawsuit

Forest Haven death probe gregory sterling 1974
Authorities investigate the death of 26 year-old patient Gregory Sterling in 1974 (courtesy Mike Perry)


Bertha Brown & Earline Thornton

Forest Haven Maple Cottage
Maple Cottage

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

One visiting family in 1977 spoke of residents being bound to urine-soaked mattresses in locked wards.

One disturbing story which came to light in the case against Forest Haven was the tale of resident Bertha Brown, an incontinent woman who suffered from a disease which caused her to try to eat anything in sight. When Bertha was tied to a toilet and left unattended, she tried to eat her feces and choked to death.

A D.C. human resources director recently placed in charge testified during the trial he had inherited “40 years of neglect” at the facility

The Justice Department had reviewed evidence and agreed to take action. The President’s Committee on Mental Retardation sent a sworn affidavit to John Pratt, the Federal judge presiding over the case, regarding the poor conditions and treatment of patients at Forest Haven.

Justice Department civil rights attorneys presented evidence of patient mistreatment to Judge Pratt eight times over a span of 18 months, but Pratt failed to act.

The case started to gain further momentum when Forest Haven resident Earline Thornton died in March of 1977.

Her brother Ricardo, also a former Forest Haven resident, recently released a statement before a U.S. Senate committee:

My sister Earline died at Forest Haven. She was on Thorazine or some strong medication. She used to be drugged up a lot. She had broke her hand fighting. The staff told her to put ice on it. It hurt. They took her to get X-rays. They said that it was nothing. For two months it was just swollen, but they took her to the hospital and they put a cast on it. That was the last time I saw her. They told me she woke up with her hand hurting and they gave her medicine to cool her down, but she overdosed.

They told me it was best not to see her. I went to school. It didn’t bother me much, but I went to my grandmother’s and everybody was crying. It really hurt then. The counselors wanted to know if I was going to sue. My aunts were saying, ‘They killed your sister. They killed your sister.’ ” Forest Haven officials said that Earline Thornton’s 1977 death certificate shows she died of natural causes as a result of a blood clot.

– Ricardo Thornton


Ordered to Close

On June 14th, 1978, Judge Pratt ordered the institution to close when he signed what was known as the Pratt Decree. As part of the resolution the District was to relocate Forest Haven residents to community group homes – as well as overhaul the mental health system.

The decree stated the residents would no longer be subjected to “acts of physical or psychological abuse” and should receive “proper medical, dental, and health-related services.”

The Thornton case was a tipping point  and combined with the Evans family efforts, they brought about the Mentally Retarded Citizens Constitutional Rights and Dignity Act, passed in 1978.

By the late 70s the average population of Forest Haven had fallen to 1,300; the shift of patients away from Forest Haven had begun, but the crimes against the mentally ill would continue.

April 1976 Forest Haven article
April 1976 Forest Haven article (courtesy Mike Perry)

• In memoriam of Forest Haven residents •

07/1976 Joy Evans, 18 • 03/1977 Earline Thornton, unk •

In September of 1981 a Forest Haven staff member was convicted of stealing $40,000 from residents’ savings accounts. Two years later there were allegations of sexual misconduct.

Our church group visited Forest Haven patients every week. We saw heavily medicated adults living in cribs–others never saw daylight. Patients were scared–of staff, of medications, and of leaving the institution.

– Kay Williams, volunteer

A cottage at Forest Haven today

As part of the structured closing of Forest Haven, the court appointed the District of Columbia Association of Retarded Citizens (DCARC) to monitor conditions at the sixty year-old facility.

In 1986 the association hired an expert in developmental disabilities to submit a proposal for a program to train facility staff proper patient feeding techniques.

The proposal had a modest budget of $24,698, but it was quickly shot down when the city said it had no funds for such a program. In a controversial effort to save money, the city did allow the Regional Addiction Prevention Program (RAP) to temporarily move in to an unused section of the Forest Haven campus in 1987.

• 05/1978 Bertha Brown • 5/2/1989 Sheila Dabney, 38 • 8/4/1989 John Schneider, 60 •

RAP was an 18-month drug rehabilitation program which included counseling sessions, writing classes, and programs aimed at building self-esteem and developing life goals. RAP’s lease at it’s previous location had expired. While it was searching for another permanent home, the District allowed the program to operate out of Forest Haven – which it did until September of 1988.

[ Click here to read the story of Forest Haven resident Virginia Gunnoe ]

The Retarded Citizens Association vocally opposed the move, worried about the danger of co-locating the two groups in such close proximity. At the time Forest Haven had 250 residents while RAP had 50 enrollees.

Alas, ten years after the 1978 Decree the facility had still not closed.


The Garden of Eternal Rest

Forest Haven rarely held funerals because society had already forgotten them. From 1928 until 1982 Forest Haven buried its dead – often without ceremony – in a field two thousand feet away. Internet lore speaks of how the asylum handled the deceased, with bodies allegedly “...loaded into coffins and dumped from garbage trucks into unmarked graves.

Sounds despicable, but the truth is less sinister: The asylum didn’t have a hearse so the staff used the maintenance crew’s flatbed truck.

The graves were indeed unmarked, as high cost prevented the deceased from receiving proper headstones. Instead a metal disk was centered between four graves, with four numbers indicating each plot.

The numbers could be cross-referenced with a master list of 387 names, but like most important records at Forest Haven this list was lost, and it would not be unfathomable to suspect the real number of deceased to be higher than officially reported.

How did the death toll reach such numbers before any investigation began? Forest Haven was in the jurisdiction of the U.S. Park Police, the agency in charge of Federal park land.

Part of the problem was the Park Police were already understaffed themselves, and they are not trained to investigate homicides or medical malpractice suits.

• 8/8/1989 Arthur Harris, 17 • 10/11/1989 Marcia Carter, 31 • 10/18/1989 Joseph “Joe Joe” Hardy Jr., 22 •

In 1989 the families of former residents purchased a single ceremonial headstone to remember those who perished at Forest Haven. (pictured above & below)

The granite monument sits in field known as the Garden of Eternal Rest, located on River Road about 2,000 feet north of the administration building. (map)

Several reports indicated the graves had recently become disturbed due to area flooding and erosion. Our photographer concurs; it appears the deceased have since been moved, leaving patches of sunken earth where the former graves had been located.


The Death Stretch

SONY DSCBetween 1989 and 1990 ten deaths occurred at Forest Haven – not the most deadly period in the institution’s history, but the highest death rate, considering the institution had just 252 residents at the time.

Medical care and living conditions had deteriorated to the point the Health Care Financing Administration took the unusual step of cutting off $8 million in Medicaid funding for the already-crippled facility.

The District opted to take no action to recover the lost Medicaid money, which it could have delayed the withholding by filing an appeal.

The residents would suffer further. Half were Medicaid-funded and comprised $22 million of Forest Haven’s annual budget.

In addition, the 1978 court order to shut down the facility ensured no capital improvements or repairs were made to the buildings for over a decade. The continuous use stressed the structures beyond their designed capabilities; the campus was crumbling.

After five deaths prosecution attorneys pushed Judge Pratt to force-close the facility in 1989. Dr. Robert Kugel, an expert on medical care for the retarded, toured Forest Haven and concluded in a report that the medical care and practice at Forest Haven exposes residents to unreasonable risks of harm.”

Between 1989 and 1990 ten residents died at Forest Haven.

Despite the deaths and mounting evidence, Judge Pratt offered the competing counsels 120 days to reach a settlement on their own.

Five more Forest Haven residents would die of complications related to aspiration pneumonia before Judge Pratt held the next hearing.

• 12/8/1989 Mary Elizabeth Reeves, 35 • 12/17/1989 Willie Marie Gil, 21 • 01/10/1990 Walter Tolson, 31 •

Forest Haven View from the 3rd floor of the Admin Building
View from the 3rd floor of the Admin Building

[ Camp Good Counsel volunteered at Forest Haven in the 1970s. GC Members 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.” ]


Compelled by the Court

Forest Haven asylumIn July of 1989 the Federal Government asked that the District be held in contempt for failing to carry out the court order requiring improvement of conditions at Forest Haven while residents were being transferred out.

Said assistant Attorney General James Turner, in each previous instance the District signed the agreements it was not followed by a discernable commitment to redress the conditions. We’re hopeful that these contempt proceedings will get the District’s attention.

The order got Forest Haven staff’s attention. In January of 1990, a Justice Department lawyer inspecting Forest Haven as part of a scheduled visit met so much resistance from the employees he was forced to ask a Federal Judge to compel the staff to cooperate.

A January 1990 report noted just two physicians were serving Forest Haven’s 232 patients, and one – Dr. Yin Chuan Hung – was found to be “professionally incompetent” in 1988 by the Maryland Commission on Medical Discipline.

Forest Haven basement of Elm Cottage
Basement of Elm Cottage

Attorneys asked Judge Pratt to threaten to fine the District $10,000 – plus a daily fine for every day the city exceeded the court-imposed deadline. The Judge complied, and in April of 1990 he gave Forest Haven a hard deadline of October 1991 to finish relocating the remaining 233 residents and close.

• 02/20/1990 Michael Pipkin • 04/21/1991 Charisse Marcella Gantt, 28 • 06/02/1992 Willie B. Reese, 26 •

The Judge set a goal of 39 resident relocations every 3 months; failure to satisfy this standard would result in a $10k fine and additional fines of $100 per resident per day. The per-resident fine would climb to $200 per day after 30 days.

On Nov. 14, 1990, the Justice Department filed a petition for a writ of mandamus to compel the court to act on the government’s motion for a contempt judgement against the District for failure to comply with the previous consent orders. (For non-lawyer types: A seldom-used legal maneuver was submitted which asked an appellate court to compel Judge Pratt to adjudicate the case or make a ruling since he had not done so on his own.)

Forest Haven basement of Elm Cottage
Basement of Elm Cottage

At least eight Forest Haven residents died between May 1989 and January 1990, yet the court inexplicably has refused to decide whether sanctions are necessary to force defendants to comply with its orders.

– Justice Department petition

The appellate court denied the writ three months later, saying that not enough time had passed for the Judge to be compelled to take action. The District was given 21 days to respond, at which time oral arguments would be heard.

Forest Haven stairwell to rooftop, Curley Building West
Stairwell to rooftop, Curley Building West

By April of 1991 progress had been made on the patient exodus, and it couldn’t have come sooner. The final ninety-one poor souls arguably had it the worse than any residents prior.

At this time Forest Haven was listless, running extremely lean, and absent of funding for some of the most basic care.

The last residents often choked on their food because there were too few attendants around to make sure everyone ate properly. Staff funding had been cut and qualified volunteers were nowhere to be found, so residents were left unattended in their beds.

Bowel obstructions, aspiration pneumonia, rashes, and muscle atrophy accelerated in the final months at Forest Haven.

Attorneys asked the District for $395k to hire two more doctors and six additional therapists to help with the patient transition, but the request was declined.

The case would continue for years until presiding Judge John Pratt passed away in August of 1995. After his death the case was reassigned to Judge Stanley S. Harris, and after Harris later retired, Judge Ellen Huvelle.


[ Watch “Asylum” short film about Forest Haven by District 7 Media ]

[ Watch “Nevah” video of Forest Haven by OperatorPerry ]


Closing & Migration to Group Homes

The final weeks at Forest Haven were hectic. Residents were readied for their moves while the now-bare bones staff packed the residents’ belongings (hairbrush, toothbrush, and other basic toiletries) into small footlockers.

When possible instructions detailing food, hairstyle, and music preferences were written down on cards and accompanied the residents to their respective group homes.

October 14th, 1991: Forest Haven officially closes

The last fifteen residents were moved out in late September of 1991. On October 14th, the Forest Haven institution officially closed. It had served the District for 66 years.

I didn’t think it would take this long, but you’re talking about a population where the majority of people don’t have a political voice.

– Betty Evans

Curley building as seen from administration building
Curley building as seen from administration building

Each of the residents were assigned to one of the District’s 160 group homes, most of which were run as a for-profit business by healthcare entrepreneurs. In 1990 privately-operated group homes received Federal subsidies to house about 1,100 of the 8,000 mentally ill D.C. residents.

Forest Haven ChapelHowever some advocates warn residing in a group home does not promise a better life. Reports of abuse in group homes were nearly as common as of those in the institutions, a scary thought considering just a fraction of group homes were properly evaluated on a regular basis.

In the early 1990s, mentally retarded workers could be paid less than minimum wage for work done as part of a treatment or job-training program.

District inspection and social worker budgets did not increase, leaving the same staff previously responsible for Forest Haven now responsible for the monitoring of 160 different group homes. It was the familiar refrain of budget issues and understaffing – only now the job was 160 times more difficult. Standards were inevitably going to suffer.

Forest Haven Chapel
The chapel is in better condition than the rest of the facility

The logistics complications posed to city investigators and social workers over the geographic separation of group homes reminded everyone of the economic justification behind institutions in the first place.

But social policy had changed, centralization was out. Mankind had won the battle against the asylums, but in the darker corners of suburban America abuse and exploitation of the mentally ill was still rampant.

A tour of Forest Haven, courtesy Matt Carl Design:



The Settlement

Forest Haven dentist office admin building
Dentist office, Admin Building

In 1994 the District settled with six families who had filed a lawsuit in 1992 over the poor treatment of residents at Forest Haven.

The suit stated the residents, aged 22 to 35, were kept in cribs and restraints for years, lying in soiled diapers on filthy sheets in rooms that smelled of urine.

Each of the residents cited in the suit died from aspiration pneumonia. It was alleged the deaths resulted from the staff feeding the residents while they were laying down, and then failing to subsequently seek treatment when the residents first exhibited symptoms.

The staff were often vilified and became the punching bags of the prosecuting attorneys. One Forest Haven social worker felt compelled to share her side of the story:

It would take me 20 to 30 minutes to properly feed one [resident]. A lot of workers were required to feed eight or 10 residents in that time. And it’s made quite clear to them that they’ll lose their job if they don’t get all their people fed.

– Kathy Senior, social worker

The settlement reduced the original suit’s request of $20 million in damages to $1.075 million, which the District agreed to pay the families.

Why did it take so long? A lawyer from the case of mental patient Marcia Carter offered his explanation: “I could make as much money suing someone for the wrongful death of your cat as I could from suing the city for the wrongful death of Marcia Carter.”

During the case, the Department of Human Services (DHS) acknowledged that because of budget and staff cuts they had not been monitoring the group home program for four years.

The inside a Forest Haven cottage today
The inside a Forest Haven cottage today

As a result, immediate improvements of services and conditions in group homes was required of the District. A therapist was hired to monitor and review group home conditions – but the individual was paid by the group homes, not DHS.

Because the city was not financially capable of paying therapists, the conflict of interest was overlooked.


Right Hand not Talking to the Left

In September of 1994, local safety officials were upset when they discovered the Youth Services Administration (YSA) had assigned 20 juveniles to Forest Haven as part of a rehabilitation program – without the knowledge of the Department of Human Services. Even worse, emergency services did not realize the facilities were still being used.

I thought all the buildings were closed except for the administration building. No one from D.C. notified us of anything.

– Ray Smallwood, local Fire Chief

BrandenburgThe U.S. Park Police, who patrol the area and are also responsible for apprehending escapees, also indicated they had been kept out of the loop. When they were made aware, commander Lt. O’Brien requested security fencing be installed at the cottage still being used by the YSA at Forest Haven.

01/10/1997 Frederick Emory Brandenburg (pictured at right) 57 • 07/09/1999 Patrick Dutch, 41 

YSA spokesperson Larry Brown expressed surprise at the controversy. “It’s not like we are trying to slip anything by here,” he said. Brown added the entire complex has been in constant use by the District in one form or another since closing, and the occupants are not required to notify local authorities “every time somebody turns a light out.”

Hopes for improved monitoring of group homes in the late 1990s would fall flat; records indicate there were only a handful of visits to group homes by monitoring staff between 1995 and 1998.

A 1997 report uncovered that many of the city’s 170 group homes had gone completely unmonitored by the Department of Health.

City officials offered unpopular but pragmatic off-the-record comments explaining the failures. Simply put, those who served the retarded during the District’s budget crisis were non-priority creditors.

At times the group homes had to wait months for their promised payments. This gave the District little leverage in demanding quality care and disincentivized other private practitioners from opening group homes, snowballing the District’s shortfalls in care for the beleaguered Forest Haven alumni.

Forest Haven Morss Cottage
Morss Cottage

Forest Haven

A 1999 story revealed the cost of publicly-funded care was about $100,000 per person per year. In December of that year, Department of Health officials turned over death certificates for 116 people who had been under care in group homes – 47 more than previously disclosed.

Many of the death certificates had been altered or partially destroyed, giving no indication of who had died where, how, or under which group home’s care.

Forest Haven is nothing but a warehouse for people.

– Betty Evans

A January 2000 report indicated none of the 116 deaths in group homes for the mentally ill since 1993 had been investigated. Further incriminating was the admission by a human services caseworker to shredding documents when authorities started asking questions.

photos courtesy Dino D’Addario

By the late 1990s, judges had fined the district repeatedly for late payments to group home operators – but a fine for poor treatment of the retarded was never assessed.


Boot Camp & Juvenile Detention Center

In July of 1995 the District considered plans to convert one of the Forest Haven buildings into a maximum-security transitional juvenile detention center for girls. The Spruce Cottage building at Forest Haven was already being used by the YSA, but it was the best candidate for the conversion.

The conversion, which was estimated to take 20 weeks, was met with fierce opposition from local residents, politicians, and the state of Maryland. But in this case the District’s dearth of options trumped social concern.

Spruce Cottage
Spruce Cottage today


Forest Haven Elm Cottage
Elm Cottage

Three months later a separate quasi-military boot camp program was announced at part of a $1.4 million Federal subsidy for youth programs. The newly-renovated Jones Hall building at Forest Haven was chosen to be the base camp and dormitories.

Twenty-five juveniles would go through one of the eight month long programs at the facility as part of probation under the D.C. Superior Court’s Urban Services program. The juveniles wore Army battle dress uniforms, woke up at 6 a.m., and spent most of the day drilling before their 9 p.m. curfew.

Forest Haven Chapel exterior

I don’t remember [my natural parents] at all. My caseworker and I went downtown and tried to locate records, but they didn’t leave nothing behind. It don’t bother me, but once in a while it do. I try not to think about it.

– Donna Thornton, orphaned Forest Haven resident


Facility Deterioration

In early December 1998 regional news broadcaster Tom Sherwood visited Forest Haven, by this time closed for seven years. Sherwood discovered nothing less than a disaster, and his accounts were eye-opening to the levels of neglect at the institution:

Vandals and fire have destroyed much of what is left [at Forest Haven], but unbelievably, much remains inside. Textbooks and general interest books. Hundreds of them. Many so new they were never read. Thousands of unused test tubes are in one room. Tens of thousands of manila envelopes stacked to the ceiling in another room. Several rooms full of school desks that some classroom probably needs right now, stacked by the hundreds. Lots of office furniture, file cabinets and paper cups. . . .

D.C. police uniform jackets, from 1979 -hundreds for the taking by crooks and pranksters. And it’s not just the incredible waste of badly needed supplies. Lights and power still run wastefully in the buildings. One telephone we found was dead, but remained lit up. Fresh water spills nonstop from broken pipes, and steam still pours full blast from heating units in buildings with thousands of broken windows. . . .

Officials say recent medical records were removed [but] we found thousands of private, personal medical records here, laid bare. Usable children’s clothing lies in heaps in one hallway, and cartoon characters on the walls only hint at what was here before it all became this.

– Tom Sherwood, news broadcaster

Sherwood and others believed the mismanagement of records and other logistics failures occurring at Forest Haven were not accidental, and that longtime D.C. officials knew the property was being used as a dumping ground.

Was this malfeasance simply a poor attempt at equipment disposal and records destruction by a closed facility with no operating budget, or the result of nefarious political cash-grab activities? Those who knew weren’t telling.

Forest Haven dayroom in Curley Building East 1
Dayroom in Curley Building “East 1”

A March 2004 audit of the 1986 decree discovered gross mismanagement of the property by the District since Forest Haven officially closed in 1991. The report found none of the unused buildings had ever been secured.

Inexplicably, many still had power and running water. Vandals and homeless had become frequent visitors, as “unauthorized access to these buildings has been easy and constant.”

Teen-age partyers and other trespassers have started about fourteen fires this year.

– Ray Smallwood, Fire Chief

Tony Records was director of the Pratt Monitoring Program, established to track the court’s order that the facility be shuttered and the residents relocated.

He admits the facility itself did not garner attention when employees were scrambling to get residents resettled. We certainly didn’t focus on the buildings.”

Forest Haven was the site of one of the top 10 worst cases of institutional abuse in U.S. history.

– Tony Records

Curley-Building-Forms-2The code violations at Forest Haven accumulated for years as officials continued to sweep dirt under the rug; documents were shuffled into different buildings rather than destroyed or secured.

When the computer and medical equipment were stored, they were functional – albeit outdated. By now vandals have destroyed whatever nature or time had not.

By August of 2011 the District had finally earmarked funds for the proper document handling & facility closure of Forest Haven.

The Division of Capital Assets Management (DCAM) released a solicitation order for the “retrieval and disposal of documents in three facilities at Forest Haven.

DCAM-2011-B-0185-001 was issued seeking bids for a shredding and remediation operation to last no more than 14 days, and which “requires special equipment for working with and disposing of hazardous materials.”


Social Attitude Drives Change in Language

It’s no secret our sensitivity to language varies over time. Robert Burgdorf, professor of law at University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, acknowledged as much in 2007:

The term ‘mental retardation’ is rapidly being replaced by the phrase ‘intellectual disability,’ the now-preferred terminology for the condition. The evolutionary pattern of terminology for referring to disabilities, in which new, unsullied terms gradually get loaded up with stereotypes and derogatory connotations and are eventually replaced with fresh, unbiased terms, and the cycle begins anew.

– Robert Burgdorf, professor of law

The first professional organization and leading authority on mental retardation was founded in 1876. It was known as the “Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feebleminded Persons.”

The group later changed its name to “American Association on Mental Deficiency,” and then “American Association on Mental Retardation,” which it would be come to known for almost 100 years.

On July 25, 2003 President George W. Bush signed Executive Order No. 13309, changing the name of the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.

In 2007 the organization’s name was changed again. Today, the 138 year-old group is known as the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD).

Forest Haven stairwell in admin building
Stairwell in Admin Buiding

In all literature produced by the AAIDD, every mention of “mental retardation” was replaced with “intellectual disability.” However despite their efforts to eradicate the terminology from our lexicon, it is still widely used in quotations, statutory language, or citing of previous legal rulings.

Unfortunately the message hasn’t always been clear. Today the word “RETARDS” is crudely splashed in graffiti across a door of a cottage where the patients used to live. The word is repeated extensively around Forest Haven, appearing in nearly every building.


Forest Haven Present Day

Forest Haven dentist office admin building
Dentist office, Admin Building

Before the 2011 DCAM order, the abandoned asylum had enough antiquated equipment to fill an entire exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum. Tape machine mainframes, Western Electric rotary and early AT&T/Bell touch tone phones were littered throughout the complex.

Record players were covered in cobwebs and mold. Dot-matrix printers, reel-to-reel projectors, and tube television sets could also be found in vandalized disarray throughout the buildings.

The destruction order of 2011 removed most of the equipment, but not all. There are still broken photo-typesetters and typewriters missing keys. Records which escaped document destruction can still be found in the administration and Curley buildings, as well as Spruce cottage.

And of course there is a piano. There is always a piano.

The dental offices still contain their exam lights and reclining chairs – and up until recently even had stocked paper towel bins. Couches and examination tables are still in various rooms. A previous visitor discovered the asylum had left x-ray records behind and felt compelled to distribute them across the floor.

Kids’ names still adorn the walls of some of the classrooms. The former resident room walls contain scratchings and vandalism in the form of eerie mental patient epithets.

File cabinets have been thrown to the floor, their records spilled out. Chairs once neatly stacked on desks have been re-arranged by nature and vandals. Paint curls up from every wall in every room. The monotony of the light-blue tiled hallways feels dreary and exudes that “hospital” feel, even in decay.

One of the more polarizing artifacts left behind are the suitcases. They contained all of the worldly possessions of former patients – some of whom might be buried in the Garden of Eternal Rest.

[ Sidebar: Suitcases aren’t the saddest things found in abandoned D.C. buildings ]

Forest Haven playground (view on map)


A medical report found on the floor by Urban Explorers recorded the story of 18 year-old Ray, an orphan with deformed feet. Ray was born as the 12th child to a North Carolina mother on welfare. The records indicate he was institutionalized at age 5 after his parents died. He could not communicate well and had a pattern of exhibiting self-injurious behavior. Ray had cataracts in both eyes and only partial vision in his right eye as a result of striking himself. The report said Ray was never enrolled in a school program in his life. “He is making some grunting sounds. He has a long history of striking his head and ears. Additionally, he strikes his face.

As a result of his self-injurious behavior he has cataracts in both eyes and questionable vision in his right eye. The Thorazine has not made significant changes in his behavior.” One thing the Thorazine apparently did was decrease his social capacity: “…decreased communication with others, lower amounts of interaction. Responsiveness to nurses nearly non-existent.”


Due to poor record-keeping the true number of patients treated by Forest Haven over the decades will never be known. Experts’ best estimates have 3,200 patients spending time at the institution. If we consider the 387 deaths at Forest Haven, it had an operational lifetime residential death rate of twelve percent – and that’s using the reported figures.

Outwardly Forest Haven appeared to be an earnest facility to rehabilitate and treat those with disabilities or psychological disorders. Inwardly it was a method to corral and segregate a class of people society deemed too difficult to accommodate.


Thank you for reading this Sometimes Interesting special feature with additional content & photographic contributions from Dino D’Addario and Mike Perry.


Extra Content


Former Forest Haven residents who perished in Group Homes between 1993 and 1999 due to similar cases of neglect:

[ Josephine Gaines • Marjorie Haas • Earl Veit • Donzer Ray Fonville • Marie Dickens • Vernon Brown • Dora Mae Christian • Deborah Lynn Key • Theodore Turner • Ruth Mae Boaze • Richard Smallwood • Cheryl Ann Bush • Patrick Wyman Dixon • Robert Allen Watts • Nancy Williams • Joanne Marie Curtain • Alonzo Fouch • Helen Andrews • Calvin Nielson • Joyce King • Richard Julius Braddy • Joshua Brooks • Viola Tillyer • Ernest Durity • Kevin Paul Turner • Marguerite Spaulding • Brugiere Palmieri • Steven Vasquez • Cecil Gobble • Lee Robert Shipman • Isaac Lloyd Williams • Daniel Bern • James Scott • Reginald Lovette • Antonio McCullers • Betty Tunstall • Lawrence P. Toney • Hazel Harris • Phyllis Mallory • David Abney • Stephen Sellows • Dorothy Simmons • David Wyatt • Peter Chipouras • Grace Marie Arnold • Antonio Silva • Eugene Robinson • John Wesley Hanna • Clara French • Levander Johnson • Male, full name unknown • Eduardo Echaves • Kenny Holmes • Emma Williams • Cassandra Cobb • James Henry Wilson • Henrietta Green • Kenneth Arnold Gavin • Denise Allison Smith • Steve Edward Moore • Melvin Seymore • Fred Brandenburg • Freddie Deperini • Francis Hanfman • Sheila Payne • Louis Parnell • Gloria Marie Davis • Roy Calloway • John Motika • Raynard Olds • Herbert Scott • Sara Walford Martin • Tony Snider • Helena Taylor • Charles Rowley • Kermit Gleaton • Gary N. Thomas • William Hillery • Michael Gilliland • Antonio Lucas • James Fairfax • Lemeka Edon • Eleanor Gleason • James Smallwood • Margaret Marie Bicksler • Hilda Redman • LaVon Green • Christopher Lane • Thelma Goldberg • Henry Laker • Dennis Edward Jackson • Carlis Spears • Nannie Jones • Reginald Murray • Desmond Brown • Hazel Pinkney • A. Rowe • Geraldine Howell • Patrick Dutch • James Dean • Joseph Addison • Annie Williams • V. Bennett ]


* The Story of Mattie Hoge *

Mattie Hoge: April 2nd, 1912 – September 15th, 1987. Mattie grew up as the deaf and undersized runt of twins to a single mother. At age 7, she entered Maryland School for the Blind at Overlea, also a school for deaf children. Mattie’s mother died when she was 12, at which point she became a ward of the District with her fate in its care.

At the age of 17 Mattie was declared “feeble-minded” and under period laws committed to Forest Haven. In 1930 the District tested Ms. Hoge and pronounced her “severely retarded,” justifying the institutionalization.

For 57 years she remained at the site. On June 10, 1987, a judge ordered the District to immediately release Hoge  then 75  and place her in a Group Home. Recent tests had indicated her IQ could be as high as 95, just below “normal.”

We are dealing with an individual who . . . has spent 57 years of her life institutionalized, when in all likelihood she should never have been placed there at all.

– D.C. Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler

Hoge was not re-tested until after a Federal lawsuit demanding improvements in care and treatment of Forest Haven residents was filed in 1978. The deaf elderly woman by this time partially paralyzed from a stroke told attorneys she had never been tested by someone who could communicate with her.

Mattie Hoge’s 1930 IQ test which classified her as “severely retarded” had been administered by someone who did not understand sign language.

In a suit filed on Hoge’s behalf in 1985, Judge Kessler ordered the city to create a timetable for moving the wheelchair-bound Hoge from Forest Haven to a Group Home. The District was also ordered to hire staff fluent in sign language, and to pay $55,350 to update the Group Home’s entry so it was wheelchair-accessible.

Psychologist McKay Vernon testified he examined Hoge and found that her IQ was at the lower end of the normal range. He also said the staff at Forest Haven had failed Hoge by neglecting to place her in an environment where she could communicate with others through sign language.

To deprive a person of information for more than 50 years of her life is, short of physical torture, about the worst thing you could do.

– McKay Vernon, psychologist who evaluated Hoge

Court documents gave the following outline of Mattie’s life: In 1929 Hoge was improperly diagnosed and admitted to the District Training School, the institution as it was known before later being re-named Forest Haven. On Nov. 4, 1930, a psychological test determined her IQ was 34 and that she had a mental age of 5 to 6 years.

Mattie-Hoge-spokesman-review-article-06101987However the documents state “…no accommodation was made for {her} known hearing impairment and sign language was not used by the examiner.” Hoge was not tested again for 48 years and no court reviewed her commitment from 1930 to 1984.

She suffered from the debilitating effects of a stroke she had in 1966 and used a wheelchair ever since. She had a hearing impairment that worsened over time; now she was completely deaf.

After her mother died in 1924, Mattie Hoge was placed in a foster home. Her foster parents reported she was difficult to control, and in 1930, at age 17, she was placed in Forest Haven because her father “was not financially able to care for her.”

Since at least 1972 Hoge had been housed “with residents who are severely and profoundly retarded . . . with whom she is unable to communicate at all,” according to court documents; her family argued it had been much longer.

In 1985 Hoge’s court-appointed lawyers filed a lawsuit asking that Mattie Hoge be released immediately, and that the city pay $5.5 million in damages. The case would take years to maneuver through the legal system, but by June 10th, 1987, a judge acknowledged Mattie was not retarded and ordered her to be released.

There’s no way to right a wrong of 57 years.

– Donna Waulken, Hoge’s court-appointed guardian

Hoge would enjoy just three months of freedom after her 57-year containment; the 75 year-old passed away on September 15th, 1987.

Five months later, on February 5th, 1988, a D.C. Superior Court jury awarded Hoge’s estate $80,000 in damages.


* The Story of Virginia Gunnoe *

Virginia Gunnoe was born in the Dominican Republic in 1909. Her family immigrated to Virginia when she was a child, and the household spoke very little English. Gunnoe eventually became a domestic worker in Quantico, and married at 13. By the time she was 24 she had five children.

It was Typhoid fever which first landed Virginia in the doctor’s office. When doctors subsequently admitted her to Forest Haven in 1933, her children were taken away from her and she was kept at the facility against her will. At the time it was not uncommon to see poverty-stricken non-native speakers labeled “retarded” and institutionalized – especially during the Depression.

Gunnoe did suffer brain damage as a result of the Typhoid fever, but it was relatively minor and she retained near-complete motor functionality. She was still an accomplished seamstress at the institution – the most skilled resident in the tailoring shop, according to Forest Haven nurse Gwendolyn Walls.

Forest Haven inside Curley Building
Inside the Curley Building

Virginia’s language barrier earned Ms. Gunnoe the label “moderately retarded” by Forest Haven officials, and like so many other Forest Haven official records – they are missing now.

Shortly after Virginia Gunnoe was admitted, her husband abandoned her. But before he did, he told her kids she abandoned them.


It wasn’t until thirty years later Hoge’s youngest daughter Mary discovered her mother had not abandoned them, was still alive, and committed at Forest Haven. In 1963 the 32 year-old lobbied officials for her mother’s release: “I kept telling the officials that she wasn’t insane (the legal reason for the incarceration of the mentally handicapped)  but they wouldn’t listen.

One of the [officials] told me to not write to him anymore.

Mary Hunter, Virginia’s daughter

Persistent inquiries by the family eventually yielded results. In June of 1978 Federal Judge Pratt signed a consent decree to release 1,000 of the Forest Haven residents to community treatment centers.

Gunnoe was among those allowed to leave because her family offered her a home. After 45 years of institutionalization, Virginia Gunnoe – by this time aged 69 – was finally reunited with her family.

Forest Haven inside the Curley Building
Inside the Curley Building

She now had six grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren she had never met, in addition to her five children she had not seen since 1933.

Virginia received varying words of encouragement – depending on lucidity of the source – from her fellow residents as she left her Forest Haven cottage for the final time:

“Don’t do anything to come back.”

“Why can’t I get out of here, like her?”


Forest Haven Facility Breakdown

Disclaimer: Facility Map compiled from incomplete data sourced via decades of news articles,  facility visitor reports, and family witness accounts. If you have an addition, correction, or update – please let us know! (Special shout to Mike Perry for providing the map & filling in a lot of blanks)

(click to enlarge)

Forest Haven map
(courtesy Mike Perry)


1) Helen Curley Building 

Helen Curley 1958
Helen Curley, 1958 (courtesy Mike Perry)

This modern red brick behemoth across from the administration building was opened in 1971. The complex’s southernmost building nearly doubled the square feet of the existing institution – 68,732 square feet (6,385 square meters) by itself – and was intended to house 200 of the institution’s most disabled residents.

It was designed in modules to make it more “humanizing.” Contains everything from living quarters to classrooms. Stone walls formed circular courtyards for patients to roam during “outside time;” these can still be seen today on the map.

Employees sneaked reporter Murray Waas into the Curley Building for an unauthorized tour in the mid 1970s. Workers told him it was in this building he could find more than two dozen women – naked or in diapers – strewn across the bare floor. That was how Forest Haven patients spent their day: Sprawled on the floor. Today boxes of incident reports lay stacked in darkened rooms. Water damage has peeled the paint from walls, taggers have left their mark with graffiti displays on various walls. Graphics of the Peanuts characters adorn the hallways of the children’s ward. Kids’ spring-mounted toy rides are still mounted in the concrete play area, rusted from multiple decades of neglect.

Forest Haven Curley Building map
Breakdown of Curley Building (courtesy Mike Perry)

2) Jones Hall 

Original quarters for Forest Haven attendants and professionals, remodeled in the early 1990s and opened in 1995 as a “quasi-military” boot-camp program for youth aged 14-26 (pictured belowview on Bing maps). Guests here woke up at 6 a.m., dressed in Army battle dress uniforms, and drilled for hours before being in bed by 9 p.m.

Jones Hall, Forest Haven
Jones Hall, circa 2006 (courtesy Mike Perry)

3) Dr. Martha Eliot Infirmary (aka Eliot Cottage)

Former residence of Mattie Hoge and home to the most severely-retarded and incapable residents, until they were relocated into the new Curley building when it was constructed in 1971. Thanks to S-I reader Mike Perry, we know this building was later re-named for the former chief of the Federal Children’s Bureau. It was completed in 1958 at a cost of $813,500, and was designed to house 200 patients – mainly children.

S-I reader Cash offers the following insight: recently-used compared to the rest of the facility, and appeared to have been a children’s ward of some sort (cartoons on the walls, a Sega Genesis controller and game box, a barber shop with a rules sheet clearly written for a young audience) before being one of the main buildings used by RAP, as indicated by the numerous RAP records in the building.”

4) Magnolia Cottage

Offices and Medical Facilities. Original buildings to 1925 asylum campus. Each about 14,544 sq. ft. in size. Contain examination rooms, observation rooms, and low-level outpatient services. Also a cafeteria (dining hall) and in-processing. Some admin offices along with temporary special-needs housing for patients in transition or under extended evaluation. Additional therapy rooms such as hydrotherapy, electro-shock, etc.

5) The Central Administration Building

(30,000 sq. feet, construction began in 1938, opened in 1940) First lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the dedication ceremony on March 8th, 1940. When finished it was a two-story building known as the “Hospital and Administration Building” (the third floor was added later, sometime in the 1950’s). It initially housed 40 patients (38 hospital beds, 2 fracture beds, and 18 cribs) and had an operating room, lab space, and a “psychiatrist’s laboratory.”

Medical offices on first floor performed examinations. A pair of dental offices on the 2nd floor are still largely intact. The former x-ray room is on the second level. Upstairs has the former laboratory and main offices where facility was once governed. Today they are largely cleared out save for a few rusty typewriters missing keys and medical records carelessly strewn about – but none contain evidence of the botched lobotomies rumored to have occurred at Forest Haven. The morgue is on the lower level.

[ YouTube: A walk into the central administration building ]

One repeat visitor noticed the Social Security cards which had been stapled to the backs of the files had disappeared since one of his previous visits.

6) Oak Cottage

7) Maple Cottage

8) Morss Cottage

(Also known as Morss Hall, 31,144 sq. ft.) Named for A. Patricia Morss (1917-1984), chief of the Child Welfare Division of the District Department of Public Welfare. Today scattered desks and books indicate classrooms might have been here or at least desks were later stored here. Severe water damage (burst pipes, exposure to elements), tiles falling. Many rooms cleaned out. Recent reports indicate this structure has territorial squatters who will let you know you are not welcome.

9) Hawthorne Cottage

10) Dogwood Cottage

Dogwood Cottage was the residence of Joy Evans and described as a “veritable snake-pit.” A witness reported seeing a nurse open the cottage door only to find 80 “half-naked screaming women come running to the door.” The nurse quickly shut it. Joy, who died at Forest Haven, had back injuries caused by “urine burns from being restrained on a rubber sheet.”

Update: Dogwood Cottage was recently destroyed by an arson fire in January 2016 (pictures below courtesy Mike Perry).

11) Chapel

The chapel is the Forest Haven structure in the best condition. Most of the stained glass is still intact and the pews are still accounted for. A side room still contains the old organ and the pulpit was also still in decent condition according to recent Urbexers.

12) Elm Cottage

Elm Cottage, where fun days happened annually (see photo).

Sign reads “Elm Cottage 1st Annual Fun Day 8-4-1979”

13) Poplar Cottage

Poplar Cottage was males-only, 10-to 24-year-olds at about the same level of retardation as those in the Curley Building. Moved here when they have been taught to dress and feed themselves. Most were toilet trained. A rigorous program of “operant conditioning” was used in which tokens are given as rewards for acceptable behavior which can later be cashed in for toys or candy.

14) Spruce Cottage

Spruce Cottage, also known as “Unit 6,” was used in later years (post-1991 closing) for the Community Transition Program, where youths were sent before being released back into the community. It functioned as a transitional pre-release short-term juvenile detention facility. Spruce Cottage contained 20 beds along with examination, observation, and recreational rooms.

Former residents recalled having nothing to call their own because girls “wore identical clothes, and staff members used the same brush and comb on everyone’s hair.” Youths transferred here would await placement in long-term, residential facilities outside the District. From 1992-1995 Spruce suffered dozens of escapees prompting local outcry for a shutdown. Today the rec room contains pool table and various vending machines – including some several-decade old Pepsi vintage.

From 1993 until 1995 Spruce Cottage was used as a low-security facility for girls of non-violent offenses, such as truancy or running away from home. During this time each room had two beds, while every two rooms shared a bathroom. After 1995 the Spruce Cottage shifted to housing more violent youth when it became the only authorized facility in the city where girls could be kept in secure confinement. Razor wire was added to perimeter.

On November 10th, 2002, a 12 year-old girl was sexually assaulted by two other girls at Spruce Cottage.

The building was used as recently as 2005. After 2005 it was used for disposal of old documents and equipment. Improper record storage, stacks of old computers, monitors, etc. Some speculate this is where the bulk of record disposal impropriety took place.

15) Azalea Cottage

16) Food Services

The cafeteria/mess hall has an abandoned walk-in fridge/freezer and scattered tables inside (courtesy S-I reader Kyra D). Building is located across from the New Beginnings Youth Development Center today and vehicles still park in the lot, although nobody works inside the building. File cabinets and heavier equipment scattered about around the loading dock. (pictured below)

forest haven loading dock17) Pine Cottage

18) Holly Cottage

(12,609 sq. ft.) Built in 1932.

19) Hemlock Cottage

Hemlock Cottage was the detention center at Forest Haven. Included seclusion rooms,” 6 by 8 foot cells with nothing more than a mattress and a toilet. Heavy solid metal doors, two observation courtyards. Patients who misbehaved or were too much trouble to monitor were usually kept here – and these residents usually performed more labor.

The most violent residents were kept here, often chemically restrained with Thorazine, which left patients lifeless and still. Today it stores piles of old clothes and shoes from past residents. Very dusty, asbestos exposure likely. Severe water damage in the narrow hallways has eroded some walls and created a playground for mold. According to multiple visitor reports it’s the creepiest building on the grounds.

20) Garage

21) Laundry

(Update courtesy S-I reader Cash: Large rooms contain what could be old silk-screening equipment.)

22) Power Plant

The power plant was constructed with Forest Haven in 1925 when the original facility was “off the grid.” New 1,000-gallon steel tanks – used to store diesel fuel – were installed in 1967. The power plant was obsolete by the 1970s, after the area had joined the city of Laurel power grid.



  • Camelia Hall (or Camelia Cottage): Demolished in 2008 along with the Therapy Pool and Mary Zeigler School to make room for the new Oak Hill Detention Center (update & photos courtesy Mike Perry. Also see his before/after aerial photo below)
Forest Haven aerial 2005
Forest Haven aerial 2005 vs. 2011 (courtesy Mike Perry)
  • Forest Haven Superintendent’s House: The brick shell encountered in the forest on the way in to Forest Haven (map) was the former superintendent’s house. It was built in 1930. (info & photo courtesy Mike Perry)
  • Staff Housing: A group of buildings located near the entrance of Forest Haven, just SW of Jones Hall by the security checkpoint. (courtesy Mike Perry)
    • Lewald Hall: (18,000 sq. feet, map) A 3-story, 55-room staff dormitory built in 1950. Named for Dr. James Lewald, the 2nd superintendent of the District Training School from 1934 until his death in 1949.

      Lewald Hall, Forest Haven
      Lewald Hall, circa 2006 (courtesy Mike Perry)
    • Ray Huff Building: (10,000 sq. feet, map) Two story apartment building for staff, built between 1946 and 1950. (Do you know who Ray Huff is? Let us know! photos below circa 2006 courtesy Mike Perry)
    • Various staff residences: (map) Various structures built for the higher-ranking staff members. All were built between the late 1950’s and 1961. Each home was between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet and has 2-3 bedrooms, a fireplace, and basement.  (photos below courtesy Mike Perry)
    • Water Tower: 50,000 gallon steel tank built in 1927, one of two built at Forest Haven. The other tower was located behind Oak and Maple cottages but was demolished in the early 1960’s to make way for Morss Cottage. Photo on left below shows Maple Cottage with the old tower visible in the background (courtesy Mike Perry).


* Facility Map compiled from data sourced via news articles along with visitor feedback and other witness accounts. If you have an addition, correction, or update – please let us know! Thank you! *


Look up Forest Haven on the map: Google and Bing