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The shameful afterlife of the Fernald School in Waltham

The institution for ‘feeble-minded boys’ named for my great-great-grandfather closed in 2014. Why are confidential and sensitive patient records strewn all over the abandoned campus?

Sensitive documents scattered about the exterior of the North Hall of the abandoned Fernald School. Though the elements have damaged the records, confidential information remains legible.Bryan Parcival

Papers flutter outside the decaying building with shattered windows and graffitied walls. In the sunlight, words beneath a muddy footprint are clearly legible. A heading: “1995 Psychotropic Medical Treatment Plan.” Below it, a child’s name, birthdate, list of medications, symptoms, and a scribbled diagnosis: “chronic schizophrenia.”

Left, patient and employee files spill out of a waste bin in a former isolation room in the East Dowling Building. Right, patient files on the central staircase in the East Dowling Building.Bryan Parcival

This paper outside the North Hall of the shuttered Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham is just one of thousands of confidential documents left behind after the last patient was discharged in 2014. The Fernald was the Western Hemisphere’s oldest public institution for people with intellectual disabilities.

Mountains of records explode from file cabinets, lie on plaster-dusted floors, cover tables, and slide off bookshelves in several damaged buildings. Most documents date from the 1990s and early 2000s and reveal a range of information protected under state and federal laws, including patients’ names, their medications, behaviors, and diagnoses, and in some cases, allegations of misconduct against them. There are also the names and personal information of employees once charged with the patients’ care.

A psychotropic medication treatment plan from 1995, cropped to excise the patient's name, found on the floor in the East Dowling building for a patient diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia.Bryan Parcival

My great-great-grandfather was Walter E. Fernald, the third superintendent of the school and, later, its namesake. In his time, he was a leader in the field of psychiatry and helped promote the eugenics principle that mentally disabled children have a propensity for criminality.

The school was founded in 1848, and its name has become synonymous with American institutional mistreatment of disabled children. Patients were malnourished, abused, and segregated from society well into adulthood. Some were also made unwitting participants in medical experiments, such as the “Science Club,” in which scientists from MIT and Harvard fed children radioactive isotopes in their oatmeal from 1946 to 1953. Quaker Oats was the sponsor.

Manual labor at the Fernald, c. 1903. Boys and young men dig a new water main for the schoolhouse and gymnasium. The man on the far left may be Walter E. Fernald.Courtesy of Massachusetts Archives

Today, the 196-acre campus sits abandoned and in ruins. When the state sold the Fernald to the City of Waltham in 2014, state law required that the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) remove all sensitive documents. DDS official Christopher Klaskin says the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) led the cleanup, removing thousands of documents. As photographer Bryan Parcival’s work shows, however, countless other confidential records were left in filing cabinets and desk drawers.

An email from a DCAMM official acknowledges that the agency removed documents from the Fernald after its sale to the city but stresses that DCAMM is not responsible for fellow agencies’ confidential records and cannot assume custody of them due to their sensitivity. DDS, the DCAMM official says, is obligated to take the “appropriate actions.”

Folders containing confidential patient and employee files burst out of a file cabinet in the East Dowling Building.Bryan Parcival

The COVID-19 lockdown brought a surge of trespassers and vandals. In 2020 and 2021, Parcival set up cameras around the campus and recorded more than 5,300 incidents of trespassing. Trespassers can be seen breaking into cabinets and tossing the confidential papers around like confetti. The papers were, Parcival reports, “strewn, discarded, littered, stomped on, spray-painted, and pissed on.” He shared his footage with the Waltham Police Department and Waltham’s mayor’s office.

Under a 2014 agreement with the state, Mayor Jeannette McCarthy pledged the city’s commitment to the site’s historic preservation. The agreement also stipulated that the city would hire a security company to guard the property. This has not happened, and security for the campus has fallen to the Waltham Police Department, where Captain Jeff Rodley is aware of the trespassing. He says the property’s sprawling size makes it impossible to fully secure.

The author's great-great-grandfather Walter E. Fernald with Katherine Fernald and their children. From left, Walter (Pete) Fernald Jr., Thomas Fernald, and the author's great-grandmother Helen Fernald, who would become Helen Shaw.From the estate of Debby Shaw Link

My family rarely speaks about our ancestor Walter E. Fernald, whose personal correspondence, unlike the scattered patient records outside North Hall, is housed in a climate-controlled basement in state archives. In 2022, when I pressed my grandmother about him and the institution he led, she said, “I don’t have any horror stories about Grandpa Fernald, if that’s what you want.”

I wondered what I did want. Would it be easier to let the weight of his — of our family’s — legacy fade away?

Perhaps the state feels that same urge toward forgetfulness: a hope that institutionalization’s horrors will remain in the past and that the evidence of the state’s failures will succumb to ruin.

Left, assorted patient and employee records left in Waverly Hall, the Fernald's original administration building. Right, patient records and documents left by The Fernald League, an advocacy group that worked to reform the school, on the second floor of the West Building.Bryan Parcival

Reggie Clark and Gordon Perins were patients and roommates at the Fernald from 1961 to 1967. They remain roommates in independent housing today. They recall feeling imprisoned at the school. They remember overcrowded halls, crumbling walls, and a lack of caregivers. Perins worked in the dish room while Clark made dozens of beds each day and dressed patients who couldn’t dress themselves. “The nurses are supposed to do that,” he says, “but all of us that were able-bodied did it.”

Patient records and filth litter the floor in the North Hall, formerly a dormitory for older male patients.Bryan Parcival

It is not a leap, Clark and Perins say, from the way they were treated to the revelation that fellow patients’ confidential documents have been left to languish on filthy floors. As children, they were made to feel disposable and as if their lives and stories did not matter. They see the abandoned records as an extension of that belittlement. “They should have done a lot better,” Clark says. “If I went in there now,” Perins adds, “I would grab them. But I just can’t get in there. It’s closed.”

Oliver Egger is a journalist, editor, and poet who lives in New Haven.

Bryan Parcival is a filmmaker, photographer, and animator. He is on the faculty of the Rhode Island School of Design, and his work has appeared on PBS, the History Channel, and at film festivals worldwide.