Contrary to the current popular practice of calling state schools and institutions “asylums”, presumably to make them sound spookier, Forest Haven and the District of Columbia Children’s Center located on the property were never any such thing – the facility originally opened in 1925 as the District Training School for the Mentally Retarded and the name was changed to Forest Haven in 1963. A home for physically and/or developmentally disabled children and adults who were wards of the state, Forest Haven in Laurel, MD was closed in 1991 amid reports of horrific abuse and neglect and a variety of lawsuits filed on behalf of former residents, some of whom were confined to cribs for their entire lives, denied food, clean clothes, sheets, and proper medical/dental care. When the facility was closed the neglect continued, and many residents are still not being properly cared for. Currently a portion of the site is being used as a youth detention center plagued with escapes, abuse, and poor management while the rest remains abandoned.
I hiked through the snarled paths in the woods to get there, trying to keep alert for the copperheads I had been told were in the area. After making my way past a beautiful overgrown shell of a dorm and through a more modern and consequently less interesting building I emerged onto the campus and stood across from the children’s hospital, easily one of the more iconic and imposing abandoned buildings I’ve seen despite its lack of overt architectural posturing.
Looking back at my photos years later, I am struck by how little vandalism there was at that point. The buildings on the campus were badly decayed, with rusty metal spikes from the sagging drop ceilings jutting out at eye level and the floors coated with a mush composed of lead paint and plaster. I spent a good portion of the afternoon familiarizing myself with the buildings and reading through charts that still littered the floors.
I liked it so much that I visited again the same month, only two weeks later, and had one of the more unnerving discoveries from my travels. As I photographed the morgue in the children’s hospital I noticed a small pair of glasses in the decayed muck I was standing in – then another, then another, until I realized there were dozens around me. I presumed they were removed from the bodies of children who were brought there on the wire stretcher propped up against the wall. After taking a few hasty pictures of them I moved on to other areas of the campus. While I am not superstitious, it was a little closer to the uncomfortable reality of the room’s usage than I cared to be.
During my third trip to Forest Haven in less than a month, I was accompanied by a friend and another explorer who I had not met previously. We tried to push further into the derelict campus, into the buildings we had not explored yet. Since part of the campus was still active as a creepily prison-like Job Corps center, we continually heard muffled voices over loudspeakers and odd tones that I imagine signified different ‘periods’, as they might in a school. It was hard to relax though, as the noises were so close to the buildings we were exploring. We visited the rec center, several buildings that were mainly used for storage, classes, and another building that must have been a residence for those with severe physical disabilities judging by the crutches, wheelchairs, leg braces, and helmets strewn about.