Murphy School and Camp Freedom

Chapter 2 Murphy School


When I began my faculty career at Harvard in 1965, Mike Ward was one of my incoming graduate students. He was the first Black doctoral student in the psychology department in over two decades. Mike had just completed a thesis focusing on one child and wanted an additional child subject. He mentioned he wanted to look for this child at the Fernald State School in the area and asked me to go with him. Ironically, I had spent time in my youth with my church group on Fernald's lush green lawns but never ventured into the school.

We went together to visit the Fernald State School. At the time, this was the oldest such institution in the country. Originally operated as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, the institution had been renamed in the 1800s for its third superintendent, Walter E. Fernald. Fernald was a proud advocate of the eugenics movement and believed the best way to improve society was to separate unwanted and inferior people so they could not breed. As a behaviorist, I disagreed with his theory. The children's unit was not as old as the other buildings for the 2,000 residents at Fernald, but it was still a thoroughly depressing place.


In a book about Fernald, The State Boys Rebellion, author Michael D'Antoni describes the school:

The North building was indeed a "snake pit" where "puddles and piles of human waste littered the floor. . .The room was filled with rhythmic moans, chirps, and shouts from stooped and drugged men, many of whom were either half-dressed or completely naked.


This description was not the product of the writer's imagination but the truth. In 1966 we toured Farrell Hall and met children, nurses, and doctors. The 120 children in the unit were in large empty dayrooms and four large rooms containing 30 beds each. There were no toys or games for the kids. Some children were in straitjackets, while others acted out—banging against walls or crying. Other children stared out into space. Some kids were naked; others sat in dirty diapers. The all-female nursing staff wore traditional, stiff white nursing uniforms like Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Instead of interacting with the children, they spent the day behind thick glass walls. 

After the tour, I walked outside and felt an overwhelming wave of guilt wash over me. I grew up four miles from Fernald and played carefree softball on the institution’s lawn. During those innocent days, I had no idea of the conditions inside the hospital. Who would treat children like this? How was this even real?

The conditions were so deplorable, the children so neglected and so mistreated, that we knew we had only two choices: Go back to beautiful Harvard University and forget what we'd seen or commit to changing these conditions. It was the romantic 1960s, and I was 26 years old, full of energy, and armed with my Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a bona fide faculty position. Instinctively, Mike and I knew that changing these conditions was a moral imperative. This was not about advancing our careers, writing research papers, or impressing our colleagues. This was faith in action. 

As a young professor, I saw the potential to recruit psychology students and allow them to connect with their communities and put their training into practice. This project became my philosophy's foundation: sending students into the community is necessary to ignite their compassion for helping children. I have continued to expand on this idea throughout my career.

After careful consideration, we decided that the first step was to request a meeting with Fernald's superintendent, Hugo Moser. Luck was on our side, and we met Dr. Regina Yando, known as "Sunny," who proved immensely helpful to us. To this day, she is still a trusted colleague and a dear friend. By some miracle, we received permission to make changes. The Harvard name carried weight, and we were happy to use it. We had no formal training in hospital administration, but we had a lot of heart.

The Changes We Made

These changes seem simple, but they were revolutionary in the decaying institution of the Fernald School. Children need gentle, loving, present adults. Nurses who hid behind glass walls, dressed in intimidating, starched uniforms, did not work. We directed them to trash the stark white uniforms and wear comfortable casual clothes. Instead of hiding behind glass walls, we asked the nurses to sit on the floor, play with the children, and teach them skills.

This was progress, but we were looking for sweeping change—which meant changing every aspect of the kids' lives. Knowing that developing minds need wholesome food, we changed the children's diets at the school, introducing more nutritious meals with fresh vegetables, fruit, etc. 
Then we attacked the living situation. Instead of 30 kids in a room, we broke up large living units and placed only six children in one room. Who could sleep in a room with 30 people?

There was a night staff, but our hunch was that they were slackers. Mike and I took turns staying through the night. Soon, we redefined the duties of the night staff—we had them do regular check-ins with the kids to ensure they were sleeping and help them get to the bathroom, get a drink, or recover from a nightmare. We established a system of accountability where there had been none before.

We did extensive work with kids—one-on-one and in groups. As behavioral psychologists, we focused on changing behavior through a system of rewards, using positive reinforcement and appropriate, but not punitive, consequences for undesirable behaviors.

Results and Long-Term Changes

The kids were subject to chaos and neglect, and the hospital didn't keep detailed records on each child. So, armed with old chalkboards and file folders, we created a robust system of regular and formal assessments covering each child's progress and development. Another first was our initiative to involve any willing parent in their child's treatment and recovery.

Our programs were so successful by the second year that we sent 30 children back to their families, to resume living at home. However, since mental illness affects the entire family, we continued to send volunteers to help the children and parents adjust to their new circumstances.

In 1966, legislation mandated that the Department of Mental Health provide comprehensive mental health and mental retardation services programs. Thus, Trustees of the Fernald School and similar institutions established research and demonstration projects in vocational rehabilitation. One result of this federal–state cooperation was the creation of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center at the Fernald School. The Shriver Center includes a Community Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center, which provides biochemistry, genetics, and occupational therapy training for people working with individuals who have intellectual disability.

Our work coincided with significant changes in the country in the 1960s; the stigma associated with developmental disabilities was waning. For the first time, these children and their families could come out of the shadows. We may have been a few steps ahead of the norm in Massachusetts, but the rest of the country was catching up.


Chapter 3 Camp Freedom


In the late 1960s, many people my age—spurred into action by war, the civil rights movement, and the growth of feminism—looked for ways to contribute to a meaningful cause more significant than ourselves. For some of us, Camp Freedom was that cause.

We experimented with a summer day camp at Fernald for the kids and soon decided to put together a real camp. We found an overgrown camp in the town of Freedom, New Hampshire, on beautiful Lake Ossipee that we could get for only $1! The details of our legal and financial luck are hazy now. I'm not sure how we discerned, in our 20s, that we needed a board of directors, but we did. We cajoled Harvard faculty, internship supervisors, and specialists in child psychology from around the country to join our board. They worked with us throughout the birth and growth of our annual seven-week residential summer camp.

One photo encapsulated the joy and impact of Camp Freedom. In the photo, a young boy, six years old, sits at the end of a dock, centimeters from the lapping waves. He is wet from the lake and triumphantly grips a small fish he has just caught. The photo is black and white and at least 40 years old, but a gray line of tackle attached to the slippery fish is visible against the darker hues. The boy's little limber legs are turned away from his body; the way kids plunk themselves down without thinking about it. His almond-shaped dark eyes are wide open, surprised and delighted, and his open-mouthed grin, with new teeth coming in, reveals his thoughts. "Look, I caught a fish, I did it, I did it!"

The Birth of Camp Freedom, the Scrapy Upstart

In 1968 Camp Freedom was born—with an enthusiastic, talented staff drawn from Harvard students and others. We had moved across Lake Ossipee to the perfect 35-acre site of another camp on the lake. From winter through spring that year, 30 or more of us drove up to New Hampshire to spark new life into the abandoned camp. Our student volunteers were not only academics—they had practical talents:

  • Building an additional bunkhouse
  • Replacing decaying plumbing
  • Sanding and staining floors
  • Planting vegetation
  • Getting the old piano working (among other things)

We were idealistic but carefree and had a great time putting the camp together. One of our volunteers, Don Anderson, known as "Dr. Don," found the only store in Boston with Mexican food, which was hard to find back then. These weekly dinners became Saturday night parties. We ate spicy food and drank wine in the green forest beneath the blue skies of summer. As word got around that we were helping needy children in our forest of Arden, more idealistic young people became volunteers. By mid-June, we were open.

Camp Freedom thrived with our formidable board of directors and talented students/friends. There are far too many to list, but special thanks to Alan Brightman, Richard Brightman, Nancy Carrol, Steve Hinshaw, Diane Murphy, Peter Neville, Marsha Seltzer.

In a way, we had many camps within the giant camp of 45 kids. We had staff members trained to work with groups, or one-on-one, in specialty areas such as waterfront, nursing, sports, music, speech, language, and cooking. Specialists and visiting professionals joined us, some for week-long stays to educate for staff. In the camp setting, we experimented with creating a system of rewards and encouragement. The children earned tokens for effort and achievement, then traded them for treats or other fun items at the camp store.

Without the constraints of a school schedule and in the healthy fresh air and sunshine, we could observe each child socializing, playing sports, making art, and creating skits during those long summers. Yes, the staff had a great time, but our mission was to help each child significantly and not just for the summer. Our dedicated team created a detailed behavioral plan for each of our campers. 

Although we only had the kids for seven weeks, we were focused on a more significant mission. We planned to guide parents to help their children progress during the school year. At the end of the summer, we sent each child home with a detailed report, complete with suggestions for behaviors to work on during the year, and we had some follow-up visits.

Camp Freedom grew and served many children and their families until we closed it in 1977. After I left Harvard for UCLA in 1975, it became challenging to manage the camp, especially when two of the camp's senior staff (Steve Hinshaw and Richie Brightman) followed me to UCLA's clinical psychology doctoral program.

In 1977, I expounded on the lessons from Camp Freedom in an article: Baker, B.L. (1973). Camp Freedom: Behavior modification for retarded children in a therapeutic camp setting. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 43, 418-427.

A therapeutic camp has advantages over other residential settings for children with developmental disabilities. Many of the "red tape" hindrances of the larger institutions do not arise in the smaller, more independent camp setting. A gifted college student is available in the summer months, and "time-limited" means that the team can maintain a high output level, so the child need not struggle to fit into an ongoing group. The camp does not interfere with the child's regular school year. Parents who would otherwise be opposed to short-term institutional placement will happily send their children to camp.

Camp Freedom had a remarkable run, improving the lives of children, families, and our staff. We learned valuable lessons that we still remember, and that have influenced our own research, 45 years later.

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