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Willowbrook

Willowbrook State School was a state-supported institution for people with mental retardation, located on Staten Island in New York City.  By 1965, with over 6,000 residents in an institution planned for just 4,000, Senator Robert Kennedy was calling Willowbrook a “snake pit.” In November 1971, a local newspaper, The Staten Island Advance, published a series of articles detailing the horrible conditions at the school. 

 

Following these articles, in 1972, WABC-TV in New York sent rookie reporter Geraldo Rivera to Staten Island to infiltrate the Willowbrook State School. Rivera gained entry using a stolen key and documented the brutal and horrific living conditions of its residents, which included both children and adults. The resulting documentary, "Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace" won a 1972 Peabody Award and prompted an immediate government inquiry.

Geraldo Rivera reporting
from Willowbrook


The public revelations of the institution’s squalid conditions gained national notoriety and inspired parents and others to take legal action, resulting in the signing of a consent judgement in federal court in 1975.  It is significant to note, that despite a tremendous infusion of funds and good faith efforts to improve conditions, many public officials concluded the institution itself was ultimately beyond reform.  Willowbrook finally closed its doors in 1987.

According to Harold Demone, Ph.D., assigned to the Technical Assistance Unit for the Willowbrook Advisory Committee, from 1976-1977: 

"Among others, I had never completely accepted the full closure model. The "new" 1977 Willowbrook shattered all my residual illusions. My conclusion derived from my appreciation of the tremendous amount of creative and thoughtful work that had gone into improving the facility. They had done, or had scheduled to do, everything that had long been recommended and more in the "improvement file".

Now, 30 years later, I can still identify many of the very positive changes made. Willowbrook was cleaner, the equipment was better, the professional staff outstanding - everything was improved. But Willowbrook was still failing its clients. Our Committee concluded, unanimously, that no change at Willowbrook could compensate for its culture of failure."1

 
In his Introduction to A Guide To Willowbrook State School Resources At Other Institutions, Hal Kennedy, Esq., wrote:
"The Consent Judgement has been called “revolutionary” because of what it accomplished and for what it inspired. The closure of Willowbrook, the placement of individuals with developmental disabilities in community residences, the growth of voluntary agencies and the expansion of day programs and special education can all be linked to the Judgement. The Judgement finally recognized and enforced the rights of individuals with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. The Judgement is the model used throughout the United States and in many parts of the world."2
2007 marks the 35th anniversary of the the filing of the Willowbrook lawsuit. Dale DiLeo, author of the recently-published book “Raymond’s Room: Ending the Segregation of People with Disabilities” questions how far we have come since Willowbrook closed its doors.

 

A scene from Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace (1972)

 

According to DiLeo:

“Today, people with disabilities are still locked away from the rest of society. Perhaps they are not in the squalid conditions of Willowbrook, but they are still living lives apart from us - in institutions, day facilities, residential facilities, and other inventions of the disability industrial complex. People with disabilities are the last minority group in which legal segregation for housing and employment is still routinely provided, and their lives are controlled by one of the last publicly-funded monopolies in America today.” 3


 




H.W. Demone, Ph.D., personal communication, June 5, 2007.
2 A Guide To Willowbrook State School Resources At Other Institutions
. The College of Staten Island, CUNY, Archives & Special Collections Library, 1L-216, 2800 Victory Boulevard Staten Island, New York; Compiled by Dr. James Kaser, Archivist, February 2004, Last Updated in October 2005.

3 Raymond’s Room: Ending the Segregation of People with Disabilities. Published by Training Resource Network, Inc., St. Augustine, FL ; 1st edition; February 15, 2007.