I read a pamphlet at work that announced an upcoming presentation entitled, “Remembering Willowbrook”. My initial reaction was, “Who could forget it?” Willowbrook was a State School located on Staten Island in New York. It opened in October of 1947. The sole purpose of this institution was to provide care to children that were mentally disabled. It was to be their home, where they would be nurtured: fed properly, protected, kept clean and taught basic skills, at the very least. In reality, Willowbrook was a living hell for the residents.
Willowbrook: A Human Service Atrocity
Willowbrook was a New York State Institution that officially opened in October of 1947. It closed it's doors almost 40 years too late in 1987.
Willowbrook was a despicable institution with wretched conditions. Sanitary facilities were grossly inadequate, physical and sexual abuse of residents by employees of the school was commonplace, and it was understaffed and overcrowded. The clincher is the fact that children at Willowbrook were also victims of medical experimentation. This was unethical, immoral, and inhumane.
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Accountability for what transpired does not rest solely within the walls of the institution. There were many that failed these children. There was paper pushing, red tape and slow corrective action. Fortunately, eventually, a few had the tenacity to push the buttons that would lead to change.
Donna Stone was an advocate for mentally disabled children. Posing as a recent social work graduate she gained access to the school. She shared her observations with members of the press. The Staten Island Advance and the Staten Island Register, local newspapers, began publishing a series of articles describing the conditions at Willowbrook. This stirred some attention.
As early as 1965 Senator Robert Kennedy visited Willowbrook and labeled it a “snake pit”. At that time there were 6000 children living in an institution with an intended maximum capacity of 4,000. There was approximately one staff person for every 70 children. Kennedy left the institution, making multiple recommendations for improvement. He was quoted as saying that the child residents were "living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo". Sadly, this did not expedite reform.
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WABC-TV in New York responded in early 1972 by sending an investigative reporter and a print reporter into Willowbrook to conduct a series of investigations, exposing the disgraceful conditions. The investigative reporter was Geraldo Rivera and the exposé was entitled Willowbrook: The Last Disgrace. The print reporter was Jane Kurtin. This prompted much needed, long over-due, National attention and government inquiry.
A class action lawsuit, based on the issue of over-crowding, was filed in March of 1972 against the State of New York in federal court. This resulted in a settlement, mandating reforms at the site, but not until May 5, 1975. Add several years to that point in time before the violations were corrected. In many ways however, corrections were not enough to compensate for the history of failure and gross neglect that society had become aware of. Willowbrook was scorned and finally closed its doors in 1987.
The publicity generated by the class action lawsuit did become a major contributing factor to the passage of a Federal Law, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980.
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The horrors of Willowbrook still haunt many for reasons in addition to what I have already mentioned. Many of the residents of Willowbrook are in their 60’s and 70’s now. Many still suffer with residual effects from their treatment while living in this institution. It isn’t easy to forget the fact that children were deliberately injected with Hepatitis. During the time period of 1958-1964, feces were taken from children who had Hepatitis, put in milkshakes and fed it to newly admitted children for experimentation purposes.
It isn’t easy to forget that many children were placed at Willowbrook due to a misdiagnosis, spending their “childhood” with normal cognitive ability. These children were aware of the neglect and could identify the abuse that was occurring but were beat with a broom handle or silenced otherwise when they spoke out. They were humiliated and degraded as well.
Vanessa Leigh DeBello discusses her mother's residency as a misdiagnosed child living at Willowbrook.
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The final tragic fact to reflect upon is the number of children that lost their lives while at Willowbrook. How many at the hands of those who were supposed to be protecting them? For example, Andre Rand, a.k.a. The Pied Piper of Staten Island, worked at Willowbrook as a physical therapy aide between 1966 and 1968. He was found guilty of murder and pedophile rape. He committed and was convicted of 4 known acts that occurred between 1972 and 1987. The youngest victim was 5, the oldest was 12. He buried one of his victims in a shallow grave on the grounds of the institution. He was arrested in 1987 but how many victims were there prior to 1972? How many unnamed or unknown victims did he have access to during his employ at Willowbrook?
Willowbrook was founded with the best of intentions. Willowbrook became an instrument of evil. It should not be forgotten from the perspective that we, as a society, should never just assume that “right” is being done. When it is clear that something is amiss, we should demand immediate action toward remedy with whatever voice we have. If one reflects on the history of Willowbrook it becomes apparent that when guided by relentless reporters, writers and publications: The pen can indeed be mightier than the sword.