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Seeking Freedom From Label at Last

Institutionalized as youths, Fred Boyce and others were tagged 'morons' and subjected to experiments. Now they want an apology.

August 23, 2004|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

WALTHAM, Mass. — Fred Boyce was only 7 years old when the heavy iron gate shut behind him at Fernald State School. Already, he had lived in seven foster homes.

At Fernald, Boyce was pressed into labor to keep the facility running. He received barely any education.

He was warehoused with 35 other boys in a decrepit brick dormitory. A single attendant harshly punished anyone who stepped out of line. As a "reward," well-behaved students like Boyce got to join a special Science Club -- where MIT researchers conducted experiments by feeding the children radioactive oatmeal.

But for Boyce, the worst indignity was the label of "moron" affixed to his file when he left Fernald at age 19.

As an assessment of mental capability, the word was discarded long ago. Though moron has crept into the vernacular and is often playfully used, Boyce, 63, sees nothing endearing about the term that he believes severely limited his personal and professional options.

Now, Boyce, who ended up a carnival worker, and six other Fernald State School alumni have asked Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, to expunge the word moron from their records. They also want a formal apology.

"A genuine apology," Boyce said. "Not some patronizing excuse for an apology."

Gerald J. Morrissey Jr., commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation, said an apology was under discussion.

After meeting recently with the seven men, Morrissey said he was convinced "something has to be done on the public record" for those mistreated by a system that took advantage of children who perhaps had a disability -- but more likely, were ordinary children from destitute or troubled backgrounds.

They were orphans, runaways or incorrigible. Using tests that have since been debunked, they were assessed as feeble-minded. Then, like Boyce, they were issued uniforms and put to work. School administrators told their families that not much could be expected from them because they were morons.

"They want their dignity back," Morrissey said. "And they want to make sure for their kids, their grandkids and their families at large that they are remembered as full citizens -- not with disparaging, stigmatizing words."

Boyce arrived at Fernald in 1949, after the last and kindest of several foster mothers died. Boyce did not know his father; his mother would have at least 13 children by a number of men.

"It was not that I was a bad boy," he said. "Fernald was a dumping spot."

Trustees at the school followed an unofficial policy known as the 38% rule, according to Michael D'Antonio, author of a book about Fernald called "The State Boys Rebellion" (Simon & Schuster). Officials had determined that to operate the school, they needed that percentage of students who were capable of working.

"The people who ran the institution knew they would collapse without the labor of the kids," D'Antonio said. "They were producing goods for the state government."

Instead of going to school, the most competent Fernald residents made tools, brushes, brooms and furniture. They gardened, prepared food and did maintenance and mechanical work, saving taxpayer cash.

D'Antonio said that at the peak of the child institutionalization movement, "there were more than 200,000 kids in more than 100 institutions" across the country. Like Fred Boyce, many of the children bore the artificial medical label "moron," devised by a New Jersey researcher named Henry Goddard early in the 20th century, when eugenics was considered a serious science.

"If you use Fernald as a measure, roughly 60,000 of those kids would have been what we consider normal today. In the course of the bad years -- about 1910 to 1950 -- easily 200,000 relatively normal kids were locked away and labeled morons," D'Antonio said. "These kids gave up family, education and anything resembling a childhood."

D'Antonio said Fernald, which housed nearly 3,000 residents at times, was considered the leading institution of its time, "so what happened there was a model for what happened across the nation."

Boyce emerged from Fernald with only rudimentary literacy skills. The menial jobs that awaited him included cleanup duty at Boston's Fenway Park and washing dishes at a soda fountain.

"I was very naive," he recalled. "I had to learn how to act around people. I was apologetic to everyone, like they were still my attendants -- like they still had authority over me."

Boyce hired a tutor to improve his vocabulary. Through a friend he began working at carnivals and country fairs, operating games of chance. He eventually bought his own portable game booth and traveled the carnival circuit -- the same work he does today.

"Because of my lack of education, I could not apply for jobs in business -- jobs that paid well and carried benefits like health and life insurance, or pensions," he said. "In order to get a little piece of the American dream, I had to save here and there."

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