Willowbrook State School
The school was designed for 4,000, but by 1965 it had a population of 6,000. At the time it was the biggest state-run institution for people with mental disabilities in the United States. Conditions and questionable medical practices and experiments prompted Sen. Robert Kennedy to call it a "snake pit."
Public outcry led to its closure in 1987, and to federal civil rights legislation protecting people with disabilities.
A portion of the grounds and some of the buildings were incorporated into the campus of the College of Staten Island, which moved to Willowbrook in the early 1990s. The rest of the buildings sit abandoned and dilapidated in the Staten Island Greenbelt.
Construction and early conversion
In 1938, plans were drawn up to build a facility for intellectually disabled children on a 375 acres (152 ha) site in the Willowbrook section of Staten Island. Construction was completed in 1942, but instead of opening for its original purpose, it was converted into a United States Army hospital and named Halloran General Hospital, after the late Colonel Paul Stacey Halloran. After World War II, proposals were introduced to turn the site over to the Veterans Administration, but in October 1947, the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene opened its facility there as originally planned, and the institution was named Willowbrook State School.
Throughout the first decade of its operation, outbreaks of hepatitis, primarily hepatitis A, were common at the school. This led to a controversial medical study carried out there between the mid-1950s up to the 1970s by medical researchers Saul Krugman and Robert W. McCollum, who monitored to gauge the effects of gamma globulin in combating it. A public outcry forced the study to be discontinued.
More scandals and abuses
By 1965, Willowbrook housed over 6,000 mentally disabled people despite having a maximum capacity of 4,000. Senator Robert Kennedy toured the institution in 1965 and proclaimed that individuals in the overcrowded facility 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" and offered a series of recommendations for improving conditions. Although the hepatitis study had been discontinued, the residential school's reputation was that of a warehouse for New York City's mentally disabled people, many of whom were presumably abandoned there by their families, foster care agencies or other systems designed to care for them. Donna J. Stone, an advocate for mentally disabled children as well as victims of child abuse, gained access to the school by posing as a recent social work graduate. She then shared her observations with members of the press.
A series of articles in local newspapers, including the Staten Island Advance and the Staten Island Register, described the crowded, filthy living conditions at Willowbrook, and the negligent treatment of some of its residents. Jane Kurtin was the first reporter to write a story about Willowbrook State School because she visited Willowbrook in order to cover a demonstration that the parents of the residents and social workers organized. Kurtin wanted to get inside the buildings and social workers Elizabeth Lee and Ira Fisher brought her inside. Shortly thereafter, in early 1972, Geraldo Rivera, then an investigative reporter for WABC-TV in New York, conducted a series of investigations at Willowbrook uncovering a host of deplorable conditions, including overcrowding, inadequate sanitary facilities, and physical and sexual abuse of residents by members of the school's staff. The exposé, entitled Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, garnered national attention and won a Peabody Award for Rivera. Rivera later appeared on the nationally televised Dick Cavett Show with film of patients at the school.
As a result of the overcrowding and inhumane conditions, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the State of New York by the parents of 5.000 residents of Willowbrook in federal court on March 17, 1972. This was known as New York ARC v. Rockefeller.
In 1975, a consent judgement was signed, and it committed New York state to improve community placement for the now designated "Willowbrook Class."
The publicity generated by the case was a major contributing factor to the passage of a federal law, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980.
Closing the school
In 1983, the state of New York announced plans to close Willowbrook, which had been renamed the Staten Island Developmental Center in 1974. By the end of March 1986, the number of residents housed there had dwindled to 250, and the last children left the grounds on September 17, 1987.
After the developmental center closed, the site became the focus of intense local debate about what should be done with the property. In 1989 a portion of the land was acquired by the city of New York, with the intent of using it to establish a new campus for the College of Staten Island, and the new campus opened at Willowbrook in 1993. At 0.8 acres (0.32 ha), this campus is the largest maintained by the City University of New York.
The remaining 0.7 km2 (170 acres) of the state school's original property, at the south end, is still under the administration of the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), an agency of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, and houses the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities and the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Services Office.
On February 25, 1987, the Federal Court approved the Willowbrook "1987 Stipulation", which set forth guidelines that required OMRDD community placement for the "Willowbrook Class". The Willowbrook School was closed that year. All but about 150 of the former Willowbrook residents were moved to group homes by 1992. Significant members of the "Willowbrook Class" were not as intellectually limited as the term "developmental delay" would indicate. Some had cerebral palsy, a developmental disability that can be accompanied by varying degrees of intellectual impairment, and some members of this class were cognitively quite intact, yet unable to communicate verbally due to their physical condition. These ex-residents of Willowbrook, many now in their 50's and 60's, live in a variety of community residences and attend day programs throughout New York State, under the care of organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy or the Jewish Guild for the Blind.
In 1997, Danny Aiello hosted and Geraldo Rivera served as commentator for a 57-minute documentary titled Unforgotten: 25 Years After Willowbrook (alternate title: Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook), which revisits Staten Island's Willowbrook State School, "remembering the over 5,000 children who were living in the facility at the time and focusing on three former residents, to see how the effects of the institution have been felt by families and friends of patients as well." Writes The New York Times reviewer, Stephen Holden: "As graphically as it recounts the horrors of the past, Unforgotten is less concerned with raking the coals of an old scandal than with showing how the treatment of the mentally disabled has since improved. The film [...] focuses on the lives of two who were once incarcerated at Willowbrook but subsequently flourished in group homes situated in close proximity to their families. / A third longtime resident of Willowbrook, Bernard Carabello, is also interviewed. Mr. Carabello, who suffers from cerebral palsy, spent 18 years at Willowbrook after being misdiagnosed as mentally retarded at the age of 3. / In looking at the lives of Patty Ann Meskell and Luis Rivera (who died shortly after the film was completed), both of whom spent many years at Willowbrook, the movie stresses their essential humanity. Each is shown interacting with loving family members who are still deeply stung by memories of visits to Willowbrook more than 25 years ago. / The film, narrated by Danny Aiello, isn't so much an investigative documentary as a blunt plea for the humane treatment of the mentally retarded. It also warns that despite changes in social attitudes (the Special Olympics are cited as a shining example of progress), Willowbrook could happen again. Remembrance is a vital key to the prevention of future abuse."
Willowbrook State Hospital is mentioned in the documentary movie Cropsey (2009), as having reportedly housed convicted child kidnapper Andre Rand, who had previously worked there as an orderly. One of Rand's supposed victims, Jennifer Schweiger, was found buried in a shallow grave behind the grounds of the abandoned Willowbrook State School, which was built under the same design as Pilgrim State Hospital.
In 2011, a former resident of Willowbrook State School, a savant named Anthony Torrone, wrote a Christian prayer book titled Anthony's Prayers that was inspired by his time and the abuse he experienced at the school.
In his 1991 book, The Soul of a Cop, retired NYPD Detective Paul Ragonese describes responding to "building two" of the abandoned Willowbrook campus as a member of the NYPD Bomb Squad. Ragonese describes an abandoned building full of hazardous chemicals, including explosive picric acid crystals, along with rooms full of jars containing specimens of human organs. Ragonese goes on to write that the incident was largely covered up by local officials.
- Developmental disability
- Human experimentation in the United States
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- Walter E. Fernald State School
- The Praeger Handbook of Special Education - by Alberto M. Bursztyn - Praeger Publishers; 1 edition (December 30, 2006) ISBN 0-313-33262-2
- A Guide to Willowbrook State School Resources at Other Institutions Retrieved August 25, 2009
- Hevesi, Dennis. "Robert W. McCollum, Dean of Dartmouth Medical School, Dies at 85",The New York Times, September 25, 2010. Accessed September 26, 2010. The took these kids and took blood samples from them and simply injected the diseases into their bodies.
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- Rivera, Geraldo (1972). Willowbrook: A Report on How it is and Why it Doesn’t Have to Be That Way. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-71844-5.
- Rivera, Geraldo (1972). Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace. WABC-TV.
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- Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook. City Lights International. 1997-02-14.
- TRACY CONNOR / DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER (March 21, 2009). "'Willowbrook Class' members killed in fire at group home; were part of infamous suit vs. S.I. school". New York Daily News.
- Cropsey. Philadelphia, Penn.: Breaking Glass Pictures. 2011.
- Anthony Torrone. Anthony's Prayers: A simple book by Grand Rapids Anthony Torrone, a grateful survivor.
- http://www.silive.com/worship/2012/01/my_lord_savior_god_helped_me_s.html 'My Lord Savior God helped me survive'
- The Soul of a Cop, Paul Ragonese & Barry Stainback, 1991 St. Martins Press0
- Grossman, Joel B. (Winter 1987). "Beyond the Willowbrook Wars: The Courts and Institutional Reform". American Bar Foundation Research Journal 12 (1): 249–259. doi:10.1111/j.1747-4469.1987.tb00536.x.
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