In Waltham, families of former patients, workers at Fernald demand role in deciding property’s future

In Waltham, families of former patients, workers at Fernald demand role in deciding property’s future

By John Hilliard

WALTHAM — Reggie Clark is 70, but memories of his childhood years at the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center during the 1960s are painfully clear.

He considers himself a survivor of the now-closed state school in Waltham that was the home to generations of people with developmental or physical disabilities. Patients weren’t allowed to leave the grounds, Clark said, and staff would threaten him with punishment if he ignored their orders.

“I don’t think we were respected,” said Clark, who left Fernald in 1969 and now lives in Leominster. “You didn’t have any choices because the nurses that were there . . . told you that you had to do it, or you were put in isolation if you didn’t.”

A decade after the City of Waltham bought the property from the state, the legacy of the Fernald school is at the center of a fraught debate.

The Waltham City Council in December approved about $9.5 million to build a recreation area along a swath of the 200-acre property near Trapelo Road that would include a minigolf course, train rides, a splash park, athletic fields, a labyrinth, and a skating track, according to council filings.

The plan has proven divisive in the city of about 64,000 about a dozen miles west of Boston.

Clark and others who lived or worked at Fernald question whether the plan is appropriate for the site, andbelieve the city has not done enough to solicit their input. While the city plans a memorial, critics said families should be part of how to recognize the school’s difficult history.

“You need to call us and need to respect us and ask us questions before they do anything,” Clark said.

Mayor JeannetteAMcCarthy did not comment on the process for deciding the property’s future.

“The recreation master plan is partially complete and moving forward. As I indicated to the City Council, the plans for the rest of the property are continuing,” McCarthy said in a statement.

Fernald opened in the mid-19th century with lofty ideals of giving people with developmental disabilities the skills to help build lives for themselves. But its reputation became tainted amid decades of cost-cutting, overcrowding, neglect — and worse.

Some patients were subjected to horrific abuse and exploitation, including children who were fed radioactive oatmeal in the 1940s and 1950s. The experiment was intended to prove that nutrients in Quaker oatmeal travel throughout the body, according to The New York Times.

A historic federal intervention that stretched from the 1970s into the 1990s compelled the state to devote more resources and funding to Fernald and other state schools for people with disabilities.

Fernald continued for about a decade before then-governor Mitt Romney moved to close the school in 2003, arguing that residents would be better off in smaller community group homes and other facilities.

A group of families fought for years to keep Fernald open; the last residents left in 2014, the same year Waltham bought the property. The campus has since languished and become a target of frequent trespassers and vandals.

Families of former patients were angered last month over news that thousands of pages of private medical records were left abandoned — an apparent failure to protect the confidentiality of patients.

For some, like Richard Aldrich, who is investigating whether his parents met at Fernald as patients, the issues with the records and the city’s management of the site make it critical that families have a role in Fernald’s future.

“Children of the people who lived there or relatives deserve a say,” said Aldrich, of Marlborough. “Not a politician.”

Waltham purchased the property for $3.7 million, and city funds were used to buy about 50 acres. The rest was purchased with money under the stateCommunity Preservation Actwhich is funded by local property taxes. The actis intended to help preserve land for housing, open space, or historic preservation.

But critics say Waltham has not done enough to protect the property. Alex Green, a local historian, said there were dozens of salvageable buildings when the city bought the land. For years, people have posted “haunted house” style videos of destroyed interiors at Fernald, and tips about evading police to get on the property.

Last month, the Disability Law Center in Boston filed a complaint against the state with the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights over the medical records breach, which was documented by Oliver Egger, the great-great grandson of the school’s namesake, and photographer Bryan Parcival.

Along with the state, the complaint also asked investigators to determine if Waltham should facelegal responsibility for the breach.

“The failure to secure medical records of persons held at Fernald is an egregious loss of personal privacy and dignity,” according to a copy of the complaint. “It also places additional barriers before family members attempting to learn about the lives of their loved ones, and historians documenting the practices which took place at this site over decades.”

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said in a statement that the state “is working with the City of Waltham and other partners to ensure the safe and appropriate removal of the documents.”

Not all agree that the city’s plans for the site are inappropriate.

Diane Booher said two brothers spent most of their lives at Fernald, where they entered in 1958. There were problems, including staff whoneglectedtheir patients, she said.

But the federal intervention by US District Court Judge Joseph Tauro led to major improvements, she said. By the early 2000s, when the state moved to close Fernald, they were among a group of families who fought to keep it open, she said. Her brothers were among the last patients to leave, in 2014.

“There were some amazing staff, and we need to remember that,” said Booher,of Westborough.

Colleen Brennan of Waltham, who worked at Fernald seven years, starting in the early 1970s, remembered being part of a group of new staff excited to be at the school at the time it was under federal oversight. One of her earliest jobs was working with women who had spent their lives in the facility, and needed additional support. At the time, there was new construction and more investment in the campus, she recalled in an interview.

“Many of us who worked there in those days, we felt part of the fruition of the civil rights era . . . and recognition of the rights of the disabled,” Brennan said.

But Brennan, 73, said the city has failed to protect the property and described the handling of it as “almost shameful.”

“It’s in a prime location and should be used for things that are going to serve the community as a whole,” she said, such as housing.

State Senator Mike Barrett, a Lexington Democrat whose district includes Waltham, said the city is missing out on a chance to create homes on the property amid a state housing crisis. Given the stakes, and the property’s history, Barrett said he supported reopening the public process — and including people who lived or worked there.

“They had a moral claim,” Barrett said.

City Councilor Colleen Bradley-MacArthur said the last public meeting to solicit community input on Fernald was in December 2021. The session was over Zoom and limited to discussions about the playground, she said.

She also believes the city should explore housing for Fernald. So far, the city has planned two units for the property, she said.

“This should be a gem,” Bradley-MacArthur said. “But we’re stuck without community input and dialogue.”

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