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Bleak House : As patients died one by one, a Washington D.C. home for the mentally retarded became one of the nation's most deadly institutions. Eventually, Forest Haven was closed, but questions linger about how the nation cares for those entrusted to its protection.

April 03, 1994|Murray Waas | Murray Waas is a Washington-based investigative reporter. He wrote this story as a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation. Jesse Drucker and Jason Serman provided research assistance

But Tulman had a difficult time finding a law firm willing to take the case. What he had not previously known was that in Washington, D.C., unlike some other jurisdictions in the country, damages in wrongful death cases are largely limited to what would be the earning potential for the rest of the life of the person who had died. Since profoundly and severely retarded persons have little, if any, potential to earn money, Tulman was told that even if the city lost, there would very likely be no financial recovery. As one lawyer who had earlier been approached by the family of Marcia Carter to sue the city explained, "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."

SINCE THE BEGINNING OF my investigation of the deaths at Forest Haven, I had been determined to understand how so many people could have died with nothing done to end the dying. I concluded that although individuals and institutions were responsible for what happened there, they, in turn, represented the city government, the legal profession, the medical profession and law enforcement. The ultimate, terrible truth is that these institutions reflect the values of the larger community.

Perhaps nobody understood this better than Betty Evans. Her daughter, Joy, who died of aspiration pneumonia, was the name plaintiff in Evans vs. Washington, the lawsuit that ultimately closed down Forest Haven.

When the Pratt decree had been signed in 1978, Betty Evans declared the court order a vindication of sorts. But the following year, after finding that little had changed at Forest Haven, she wrote an angry, despairing letter to the editor of the now-defunct Washington Star. Despite the death of her daughter, Betty Evans now said, she only felt "relief that Joy no longer had to endure" the "indifference of the human race that moves through the streets, parks, houses and churches of the District of Columbia." An entire community was to blame.

From the 18 years of the Evans vs. Washington litigation, in the tens of thousands of pages of records, is a sworn affidavit, prepared for Judge Pratt, by Miles Santamour, a former special assistant to the President's Committee on Mental Retardation, describing a visit he had made to Forest Haven.

"Late one evening I visited the residence of a group of older women, all of whom were gathered in a large 'day room,' idly watching television or working on some piece of embroidery or knitting. As I circled the group, asking questions and explaining who I was, and why I was there, I began to sense the dominance of a large, matronly woman who had positioned herself on a couch in the center of the room. She watched my every move and as I began to leave, she summoned me back.

"So that all could hear, she began a series of questions to which she answered 'yes' without waiting for me to respond. Are you from downtown? . . . Are you a big shot? . . . Are you here to see how bad we live? . . . Are you here to make this place better? . . . Are you going to get us out of here?--at which point she turned to her assembly and began to laugh uproariously, almost hysterically, along with many of the other residents. My usefulness had been fulfilled, and without responding I left. Their laughter continued as I made my way out of the room and did not subside for some time.

"These women had spent a lifetime observing the likes of me evaluating their situation and then disappearing with no meaningful aftereffects upon their lives. One wonders how many times the likes of me carried on similar investigations, how many 'big shots' from 'downtown' had been responsible for raising the hopes of these individuals, how many times they had waited for such visits to change their lives, and for how many people the changes had never come."

Miles Santamour's affidavit was filed with Judge Pratt's court in April, 1977. The following year, Joy Evans was to die. Twelve years later, Arthur Harris, Joseph Hardy and Charisse Gantt would die at Forest Haven. Fourteen years later, the institution finally closed, but the dying has not stopped.

Remembering my own first visit to Forest Haven, I realize how little has changed, including the quiet rage.

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