For 70 years, Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded housed hundreds of developmentally disabled children—often in appalling conditions.
The western Massachusetts institution opened in 1922, and soon became home to over 700 young patients. With its Colonial Revival buildings sprawled across a verdant 845-acre campus, the school looked dignified and comfortable. Inside, however, the children were suffering terribly.
In 1972, Benjamin Ricci, the father of Belchertown patient Robert Simpson Ricci, filed a class-action lawsuit against the school, claiming that its young residents were living in horrific conditions.
In his 2004 book, Crimes Against Humanity: A Historical Perspective, Ricci wrote of what he had seen when visiting his son at the institution, including naked patients smeared with urine, feces, and food, vomit-encrusted sheets, and "maggots wriggling inside or crawling out of the infected ears of several helpless, profoundly retarded persons while they lay in their crib-beds."
The Massachusetts District Court judge assigned to the Belchertown case, Joseph Tauro, visited the school unannounced in 1972. After witnessing scenes that corroborated Ricci's claims—including "a little girl drinking from a feces-filled commode"—Tauro spearheaded a major overhaul of Massachusetts' mental healthcare facilities. Budget increases, better training for staff, and close governmental supervision all contributed to the improvement of conditions at Belchertown and other state institutions.
Belchertown State School closed in 1992. Multiple companies have put forward development plans for the property, but the dilapidated site contains hazardous materials and is in need of a clean-up. For now, the old buildings sit abandoned and overgrown, acting as somber monuments to their mistreated child residents.
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