The Forest Haven Story started out as a curiosity between my younger cousin and I, of an abandoned institution in our backyard. Over the span of three months it turned into much something bigger.
There are endless rumors about the former institution. Tony Records, a Bethesda based expert on intellectual disabilities calls it one of the top ten worst cases of institutional abuse in the United States' history. It is no secret people in the DC Metropolitan area visit the abandoned place hoping to chase ghosts or catch a quick thrill. I had more questions though.
Why were the buildings still there? Why hasn't the place been condemned? Why are there still hundreds of personal medical records lying around for anyone to see and grab? And how was the current state of this facility an extended metaphor of how former residents were treated, with neglect, lack of care, and hidden away?
Many people are not aware that the case that shut down Forest Haven, Evans v. Washington (1976,) is still in litigation today...almost 40 years later. It was a class-action suit with around 900 hundred members. More than half of these members have already passed away without getting full justice.
My cousin Sabrine and I started digging through the old case files, public records, and old newspaper articles. At the time of it's opening, Forest Haven was called the District's "Training School for the Mentally Retarded." But, it became a place where many people, even those without disabilities, were discarded. We jotted down all the names we could find in the files and articles. Many of the people involved had passed away, but some were still around.
We went through a lot of contacts before we found people who picked up the phone...each time I mentioned doing a story on Forest Haven, I could hear the doubt in the back of their throat..."it's been a long time since I heard the name of that place...why now?"
We were lucky enough to find Dr. Do, the founder of the Art and Drama Therapy Institute, who formerly ran the toilet training program at Forest Haven. One of her employees, Brian Slaughter, was a former resident at the institution. To speak to Brian, we needed permission from his mother Iris.
The first visit to Art and Drama was to explain to Dr. Do the story we were trying to tell. Reasonably, she was a little skeptical at first; Forest Haven is a sensitive topic for anyone who had association with the place. Eventually, she warmed up to the idea and convinced Iris to let Brian speak to us, and even give an interview herself.
When a person trusts you to tell their story, it is a privilege and an honor. It really is. Especially when it is a story that haunts them. There is vulnerability in each of the people in the room, and we all take a trip back to their memories. In the case of Dr. Do, Brian and Iris...we really took a trip back because their story telling skills made the piece. I could see, hear, and smell everything they talked about. Leaving the interview there was a haunting sensation of living the memory right along side each one of them.
The former plaintiff's attorney, Joe Tulman, was the most skeptical of our story. He was hesitant to interview unless he knew that the direction of the story wasn't geared toward Forest Haven being a local haunted site, which was understandable.
Once you realize the horrors people went through in the facility, it's insulting and hurtful hearing many people talk about Forest Haven as a "haunted asylum housing insane people."
We met with Quality Trust CEO Tina Campanella. She heads the organization that serves people with intellectual disabilities. Quality Trust was formed through the Evans' case to continue to serve former Forest Haven residents and others, even after the case is eventually settled. Tina's passion came out most during the interview when talking about our society needing to treat people with disabilities fairly. They should never be treated lesser than anyone else. They want compassion, love, careers, and a voice just like we all do.
Getting representatives from the District's side of the case to talk on camera was difficult. Since the case is still in litigation, no one agreed or had permission to talk about it. One former defense attorney did mention the case was never really an "us vs. them," but it dragged on for so long because of the constant change in ideology in the government. The Olmstead Act (Americans With Disabilities Act) that called for people in institutions to be relocated into community settings...only came into play in 1999.
The evolution of this story was tremendous for us. The story went from the Forest Haven institution's abandonment, to shining a light on the intellectually disabled community, a group who often has their voice diminished.
The more investigating I did the more this story kept me up at night. But, I think that's how you know you are invested in a story, when it's all you can think about.
My favorite part of this story was unexpected. Later in the process we found out about Art and Drama's biggest annual concert. Brian, and other former Forest Haven residents were going to perform at the Lincoln Theater in front of hundreds of people. Iris, Brian's mother, Jodi, and his sister, were both going to be in attendance. Ending the story on this note of light, and hope, was how everything was going to come full circle. And it did. Seeing Brian and Iris together after the show brought so much happiness to everyone around. Iris said it best, seeing the performers go from Forest Haven to this incredible concert is just: "awesome."
We left the Forest Haven visit for last. It had been on my mind for weeks and I was nervous. It was 7 AM on a Friday morning. Golden hour. 50 degrees. Crows were sitting high, watching us move towards Forest Haven. The campus was haunting and descriptions from the interviews with Dr. Do and Brian came rushing back. "The putrid green walls, the shoes with no ties, the backed up toilets, the cribs/cages." When you're in a place like that, all you can think about is framing and composition of the shots, and selecting the right b-roll to help tell the story. It wasn't until we saw the vlog footage that it hit us: we went to Forest Haven and witnessed the memories of everyone we spoke to.
Journalists tell the story, but its up to viewers to take from it and apply to their lives. With The Forest Haven Story, the hope is for people to recognize the potential of an extremely neglected community and stop seeing people with disabilities as an "other." It's up to us to create environments where they can show case their talents, and constantly be an integral part of society. Maybe Forest Haven still standing, and seeing the condition will inspire people to think, "never again."
The current state of the Forest Haven facility really is a metaphor of how the intellectually disabled community has been and is presently treated. But, with people who fight on the front lines of this issue, it doesn't have to be that way.
Check out our Behind The Scenes VLOG of "Visiting Forest Haven":