IN 1925, FOREST HAVEN was considered an innovation in mental-health care, a pastoral enclave of more than 15 one- and two-story buildings exclusively set aside for the treatment of those unable to care for themselves. It had an impressive reputation during its early years and was frequently cited as an example of what other cities could do. But for reasons that may never be altogether clear, Forest Haven has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Some of the 1,000 patients began to receive only minimal care; others were physically abused, given unnecessary drugs and left to eat and sleep in filth. The District's Department of Human Resources, which ran the institution, was repeatedly accused of mis-management - all too often with no results.

Almost three years ago, relatives of several patients sued the District government, citing a list of specific abuses. The case was recently settled when U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt ordered city officials to make some major changes right away.For example, Forest Haven staff members are to stop giving patients excessive and unprescribed medication - a practice often used to subdue patients considered "beyond control." The order also calls for the immediate hiring of a new director to work with a community review board and with city officials to carry out other changes.

perhaps the most important requirement of Judge Pratt's ruling is that patients be released from Forest Haven on a regular basis, given job training and assisted in finding jobs and places to live in the area. As it now stands, people who no longer need treatment are often kept in institutions simply because no one knows what they might face on the outside. Moreover, former patients must contend with opposition to foster-care homes in residential areas as well as a reluctance to hire them. DHR will now be obliged to help released patients overcome those obstacles.

This is not the first court order requiring city officials to treat institutionalized persons more humanely - and to release those no longer in need of treatment. Similar edicts have been issued for the elderly and handicapped and for patients in other mental institutions. Forest Haven has a long way to go before it is again known for high-quality care. But Judge Pratt's ruling at least calls for some immediate relief from the worst practices at that institution.