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.

By Elizabeth Mehren
Times Staff Writer

August 23, 2004

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."

He bought a small house in the suburbs. He was married briefly, with no children. He stayed on such good terms with his former wife that when he was diagnosed with colon cancer three years ago, she and her husband cared for him.

Boyce refuses to connect his cancer with the Science Club experiments at Fernald. In a project sponsored by Quaker Oats and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boyce was one of a group of students who were served radioactive oatmeal for a study on the effects of radioactivity on humans.

Science Club members got special privileges, such as outings to baseball games. They also got extra helpings of oatmeal. In 1995, a group of former Science Club members accepted a settlement that paid each man $50,000 to $60,000.

Boyce took the payment, but did not blame the school. "Lots of people get colon cancer, and they were not part of the Science Club," he said.

He voiced much the same equanimity about his years at Fernald — where about 250 severely retarded residents remain institutionalized. With buildings that date from the mid-19th century, the place has a shabby, overgrown look.

On a recent visit to the facility, Boyce stopped in front of Ward 22, where residents who broke the rules were confined to cells on the top floor. Once, Boyce picked a lock on a cell and thought about escaping. But he was afraid of the older residents he would have to confront if he wanted to get out.

"They were described to us as monsters," he said. "It was part of the constant degradation that went on here. We were controlled — totally controlled."

David White-Lief, a Boston attorney who is representing the seven former Fernald students, said that in addition to an apology and a clarification of state records, he may seek compensation on grounds that the men were denied education and used as forced labor.

White-Lief, who is representing the men at no charge, said the petition could serve as a national model. Until the practice of using intelligence tests as a basis for commitment ended in the 1960s, institutions across the country used flawed tests to misclassify thousands of children who either were put to work or left to wallow, White-Lief said.

Boyce has no bitterness about his childhood. But he said it would not take much for the state to acknowledge what happened.

"All they have to say is, 'We apologize' — that we were not morons, and it was a terrible thing to say about anyone."


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