What Happened to the Southbury Training School?

July 23, 2014

The Southbury Training School (STS) was once one of the largest care centers in Connecticut for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But over the years, it has become a center of controversy. Last week, controversy rose up again when the federal government asked Connecticut to house displaced migrant children in the facility. The governor’s administration said no, reporting that STS sits “in a state of disrepair” making it incapable of housing migrant children.

This response and description of the facility got me thinking: is the level of disrepair too great to house anyone safely? How did such a large facility crumble? And what can we do to remediate the area?

Here’s what I learned.

The History

The Southbury Training School (STS) was built after the Great Depression and opened its doors in 1940. The campus features 125 colonial-style cottages spread over 1,400 acres and was intended to be the home for people in need of long-term care. At its peak in 1969, the school was home to 2,300 residents.

However, in the 1970s government began moving away from institutionalization in favor of other care solutions and community-based support. Then, in 1984, the federal government sued the state of Connecticut over staff shortages and poor living conditions at STS. In 1986, the state decided to close STS to any new admissions. In 2006, the school was released from federal oversight after complying with all the improvement mandates outlined by the federal government. But the ban prohibiting new admissions still applied.

In 1994, STS was again questioned about its practices and quality of care. This time a court found that some policies at STS were making it difficult for residents to apply for and qualify to live outside of STS in a community setting. The court findings led to the 2010 Messier v. Southbury Training School Settlement Agreement, which paved a clear path to community living options for STS residents.

Currently, the resident population has reduced to approximately 368 individuals living at the facility.


Since the population served by the facility decreased so drastically, many buildings went unused in recent years. While there are some discrepancies over the extent of the deterioration, the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) recently described STS stating that many buildings are “in a state of disrepair to the point where a certificate of occupancy would be difficult to obtain.” Writing to the federal government about why the facility would not be suitable to house migrant children, OPM continued, “…many existing structures are beyond salvage and require environmental remediation and demolition.”

What to do now?

Because the facility takes up such a huge space but serves a limited number of people, the state has looked into transforming the space for other uses. Everything from farmland preservation to education facilities and recreation space development has been discussed. In 2013, legislation was even approved to preserve and create management guidelines for the “Farm at Southbury Training School,” in an effort to protect current farmland at the facility.

Earlier this year, the governor’s STS Task Force released their assessment of the infrastructure and buildings at STS. While the study reported “no major deficiencies found of the existing site conditions,” the assessment did recommend the following “next steps” before repurposing the area:

  • Funding and completion of an Environmental Assessment
  • Funding and completion of a Historic Assessment Survey
  • Funding and ongoing mothballing of structures no longer in use
  • The discussion and creation of an authority unique to the use and reuse of the Southbury Training School

Southbury Training School may not be ready for new programs just yet, but with a solid plan there is definitely potential for renewal in the future.