The Story That Revealed Willowbrook’s Horrors

January 05, 2016 at 7:10 pm

“There was one attendant for perhaps 50 severely and profoundly retarded children. Children lying on the floor naked and smeared with their own feces…”

Forty-four years ago, television journalist Geraldo Rivera (joined by print reporter Jane Kurtin) used a stolen key and an inside tip to go behind the walls of the Willowbrook State School for the developmentally disabled on Staten Island. His investigative report captured a story and scenes so shocking, it changed the face of mental health as we know it.

“The doctor had warned me that it would be bad,” Rivera said at the beginning of his 1972 broadcast report. “It was horrible.”

More than four decades later, he says he’s still impacted by the conditions he saw inside the school.

“You know I see that and it chokes me up to this day. It’s almost like an automatic response and it just evokes — and I hadn’t seen it in a while — it just evokes that original sensation, that feeling that I had when I walked in there,” he told MetroFocus Host Rafael Pi Roman before removing his glasses to wipe at his eyes.

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Rivera recalled the story of Bernard, a patient he interviewed at the school. He was 21 years old at the time but had been at the school since he was a toddler.

“Bernard was a classic example. He was a guy with cerebral palsy and other disabilities, but he (did not have) a low IQ. In other words, his IQ was normal, within the normal range. He was just misdiagnosed,” Rivera said. “In those days, they put everybody in the institution.”

At the time of the interview it was Bernard’s birthday and he was able to sign himself out of the institution because he was of age. Since then, he has worked for the state as a patient advocate, Rivera said.

“So he’s had a long career, he’s now 66 years old and he’s about to retire,” he said. “But he is exactly what I’m talking about in terms of potential unrealized for that population.”

Rivera’s landmark report exposed the negligence and abuse inside an institution that was meant to educate the disabled.

“It was called a school but there was no education or remediation or vocational training. There was none of that,” he said.

Rivera described it as a “kennel for humanity disguised as a school.”

No criminal charges were filed as a result of the report but Rivera says a greater outcome was achieved.

“Now everyone knew that the institution was no way to care for this population,” he said. “It absolutely began the end of the institutional era that had existed since Bedlam and the United Kingdom in the 19th century.”

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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