The federal government is conducting a civil rights investigation involving the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services over a patient privacy breach at the shuttered Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham.

The state Executive Office of Health & Human Services confirmed to GBH News this week that the investigation has opened and that the state is cooperating.

The investigation was prompted by media photos showing the former school for disabled people with patient records strewn across the dilapidated property.

According to documents reviewed by GBH News, the federal Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services received at least two complaints about federal patient privacy violations at the site.

One of those complaints originated in January from the Boston watchdog group, The Disability Law Center. In a letter to the Disability Law Center dated March 27, the federal human rights office said it is consolidating its response to both complaints into a single investigation.

Rick Glassman, director of advocacy at the Disability Law Center, said it's hard to imagine patient records being left behind if any local hospital were to close.

"Why do these things happen to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and don't happen to able bodied people?" Glassman asked. "It challenges us to ask about how we allow institutions like Fernald to exist to begin with, and how we haven't reckoned with the history of those institutions."

A large room with wooden beams and graffiti on the walls is strewn with paperwork and overturned furniture.
The old Fernald State School buildings, many of which still contain old paperwork from the institution, have been left to vandals and the elements.
Bryan Parcival, shared with GBH News Bryan Parcival

The campus was sold by the state to the City of Waltham in December, 2014.

The Fernald, as it was widely known, is home to a dark history of abuse, including reports of research on children by Harvard and MIT that laced breakfast cereal with radioactive iodine.

At the same time the records were left to the elements at the old facility, many family members of former Fernald residents have said it’s nearly impossible to get records by going through the state, a public records battle profiled by GBH News.

Late last month, one of those relatives posed a question to Gov. Maura Healey during GBH’s show, Boston Public Radio.

“The vandals know more about my brother than I do,” said Brockton resident David Scott, referring to the hoards of paperwork left abandoned in Waltham. In response, Healey pledged that her team would work with Scott to learn more in the hopes of resolving the issue.