OUTSIDE WASHINGTON, DC
Back in March, we visited an abandoned mental asylum for children.
The District of Columbia’s mental health system once relied on a large, centralized bureaucracy that relocated patients to huge facilities far out in the suburbs. Forest Haven was reserved for the children and teenagers who had become lost in this system, unable to function in public schools and lacking the resources to pay for private care.
In the late 1980s it became clear that Forest Haven was underfunded, poorly run and downright dangerous. Mentally ill children were choking on their feeding tubes and being buried unceremoniously on the banks of the Patuxent river. Once the lawsuits mounted and the citizens of DC began to call for serious reform, the government took steps to decentralize the system and placed patients in smaller hospitals closer to their homes. In October of 1991 the children were loaded into vans, the employees took their belongings and Forest Haven’s twenty-some buildings were forgotten.
Today Forest Haven lies in a no-man’s land between two highways, untouched by the DC government since its hasty evacuation. It is invisible from any major road and far from any public transportation, which has helped to preserve the medical records, prescription drugs and broken children’s toys that remain strewn about the grounds. There are no fences, no guards and no signs marking what this once was or even that it is something worth remarking upon.
I first learned about Forest Haven through a Flickr gallery, but the only information it offered was the general location. I found it after an hour on Google Maps and the WaPo archives. Within a few days we’d assembled a strike team, gathered the necessary supplies and were poring over satellite photos in a suburban diner, the plan sealed in red pen marks and coffee stains.
There was nothing inconspicuous about this operation, but we managed to park our motorcycles without arousing suspicion and made our way through about a quarter mile of woods. I’m not sure any of us knew what we were getting into, but when we broke through the trees into that massive, post-apocalyptic expanse of dilapidated buildings it was clear this wasn’t going to be like sneaking into a neighborhood construction site.
After being greeted by a deer carcass under a disused container, our first stop was what looked like a medical ward. Forest Haven was vacated pretty quickly, but the first step inside gives the feeling of hundreds of people dropping what they were doing and leaving as quickly as possible – hospital beds rotted where they were left, fading artwork hung on the walls and children’s cubbies still had names on them. Somebody had spray painted “Psyco Room’s –>” in the hallway and penises onto a mural of Lucy and Shroeder.
The rest of the buildings were in a similar state. We checked them off on our satellite maps and took compass bearings to find the next target, walking through dorms, offices, kitchens, laundry facilities and everything else you’d expect in a place completely cut off from the rest of the world. Each was littered with the ephemera of daily life in a juvenile psychiatric hospital – board games, children’s drawings, basketballs, shattered televisions with “hue” dials on them. But for as much as these would remind one of the place this once was, it was the papers overflowing from file cabinets that put a human face on what happened here – clinical narratives of the lives of disturbed children interned at Forest Haven. Leafing through the pages one could read through the stories of kids that were doomed from the start, picking out the lines where maybe they could have been saved if only someone, somewhere had cared just a little bit.
Throughout the expedition we’d avoided one particularly threatening building, its fifteen foot high razor wire fence and new paint job suggesting that it might still be in use. As we got braver and closer it became apparent that the heavy steel door was wide open and nobody was home, so we walked in to find what was, for me, the most disturbing part of Forest Haven.
The first room was a doctor’s office with bright pink walls, scales, and piles of unidentifiable drugs on the counter. It was abandoned, but the calendars from 2007 and lack of broken windows made it clear that it was vacated much more recently than what we’d seen before. Further down the hallway were a series of locked doors with tiny clouded windows peering in on empty, featureless rooms. Even with the razor wire outside, I didn’t make the connection until I noticed something scratched into the glass on one of the doors:
“FUCK DR HILL”
This was a prison for insane children. Two years ago it held kids who were so disturbed that they were locked in cages among the crumbling remains of an abandoned mental asylum. I can’t even imagine the amount of trauma, conflict and tragedy that this building saw and the effect it must have had on the patients and poor souls who worked here.
After a full day in Forest Haven’s disquieting underworld we trekked back through the woods and stopped in a bar just on the other side. Not a single one of the employees or patrons had ever heard of it.