The Story That Revealed Willowbrook’s Horrors

Encore: January 05, 2016

“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.

mefo-1042-geraldo-onset

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.”

TRANSCRIPT

> IT WAS 43 YEARS AGO MY NEXT GUEST USING A STOLEN KEY AND INSIDE TIP ENTERED THE WALLS OF THE WILLOWBROOK SCHOOL FOR THE DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED ON STATEN ISLAND.

WHAT HE CAPTURED WAS A STORY SO SHOCKING, IT CHANGED THE FACE OF MENTAL HEALTH AS WE KNOW IT.

LET'S TAKE A LOOK.

THE DOCTOR HAD WARNED ME THAT IT WOULD BE BAD.

IT WAS HORRIBLE.

THERE WAS ONE ATTENDANT FOR PERHAPS 50 SEVERELY AND PROFOUNDLY RETARDED CHILDREN, CHILDREN, LYING ON THE FLOOR NAKED AND SMEARED WITH THEIR OWN FECES.

THEY WERE MAKING A PITIFUL SOUND, THE KIND OF MOURNFUL WAIL THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE FOR ME TO FORGET.

THIS IS WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE, THIS IS WHAT IT SOUNDED LIKE, BUT HOW CAN I TELL YOU THE WAY IT SMELLED?

IT SMELLED OF FILTH, IT SMELLED OF DISEASE, AND IT SMELLED OF DEATH.

WE RETURNED WITHOUT THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION AND THROUGH A BACKDOOR.

IT WAS THE FIRST DAY ALL OVER AGAIN.

FOR THESE PEOPLE LIFE IS JUST ONE HOUR AFTER ANOTHER OF LOOKING AT THE FLOOR.

EVERY CHILD CAN BE TRAINED, YOU KNOW.

THESE KIDS, THERE'S NO EFFORT.

WE DON'T KNOW WHAT HE'S KIDS ARE CAPABLE OF DOING.

HOW IS IT LIVING ON THE WARD THAT YOU LIVE?

DISGRACE.

A DISGRACE?

YES.

WE ASK FOR CHANGE.

WE DEMAND CHANGE.

WHAT YOU SEE HERE, IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY.

WITH ME NOW IS GERALDO RIVERA.

GERALDO, WELCOME.

YOU KNOW, I SEE THAT AND IT CHOKES ME UP TO THIS DAY.

IT'S ALMOST LIKE AN AUTOMATIC RESPONSE.

IT JUST EVOKES -- AND I HAVEN'T SEEN IT IN A WHILE.

IT JUST EVOKES THAT ORIGINAL SENSATION, THAT FEELING THAT I HAD WHEN I WALKED IN.

THERE WAS NO -- I HAD NO CONNECTION AT ALL TO WHAT THE POPULATION USED TO DEFINE AS MENTALLY RETARDED AND NOW DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED.

SO SEEING IT FOR THE FIRST TIME, IT WAS LIKE A TRAUMATIC SHOCK.

IT WAS LIKE I HEAR DESCRIBED -- I'M SORRY, I HEAR DESCRIBED HOW GIs REACTED WHEN THEY SAW THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS WHEN THEY WERE LIBERATED, EVEN THOUGH WHO INTELLECTUALLY KNEW WHAT THEY WERE GETTING INTO.

AND IT'S LIKE A FORM OF POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS ALMOST.

REALLY?

AND BERNARD, I WAS WITH BERNARD LAST FRIDAY.

THE YOUNG MAN WITH THE MUSTACHE.

YEAH.

HE WAS 21 YEARS OLD ON THAT DAY.

SO WE COULD SPRING HIM, GET HIM OUT.

HE COULD SIGN HIMSELF OUT AT THE AGE OF 21 BECAUSE TECHNICALLY IT WAS A STATE SCHOOL THEY CALLED IT.

WE GOT HIM OUT, AND BERNARD WAS A CLASSIC EXAMPLE.

A GUY WITH CEREBRAL PALSY AND OTHER DISABILITIES, BUT HE WAS NOT A LOW IQ.

IN OTHER WORDS, HIS IQ WAS NORMAL, WITHIN THE NORMAL CHANGE.

HE WAS JUST MISDIAGNOSED.

IN THOSE DAYS, THEY PUT EVERYBODY IN THE INSTITUTION.

HERE HE IS, CEREBRAL PALSY, THREE YEARS OLD, LIVING ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE, PUERTO RICAN MOM.

THE DOCTOR SAYS, YOU CAN'T HANDLE THIS KID.

TAKE HIM, AND WE'LL PUT HIM IN THIS INSTITUTION.

WILLOWBROOK, STATEN ISLAND IN NEW YORK CITY.

IT WASN'T LIKE BELARUS OR ASIA SOMEPLACE.

IT WAS NEW YORK CITY.

AND THEY PUT HIM IN THERE AT THE AGE OF 3.

THIS IS 18 YEARS LATER WHEN WE FOUND HIM.

AND I WANT TO MAKE THIS ONE POINT, RAFFY, HE'S WORKING FOR THE CITY, STILL WORKING, FOR THE STATE OF NEW YORK, PATIENT ADVOCATE.

SO HE'S HAD A LONG CAREER.

HE'S NOW 66 YEARS OLD AND HE'S ABOUT TO RETIRE, BUT HE'S EXACTLY WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT IN TERMS OF POTENTIAL UNREALIZED FOR THAT POPULATION.

BUT WHAFT WAS WILLOWBROOK SUPPOSED TO BE?

WHAT DID IT SELL ITSELF AS?

WHAT SERVICES DID IT PRETEND TO PROVIDE?

GREAT QUESTION.

REMEMBER IT WAS STYLED A STATE SCHOOL.

THE IDEA WAS PUBLIC SCHOOLS WERE FOR ABLE-BODIED CHILDREN AND STATE SCHOOLS FOR THE DISABLED.

BUT WHAT HAPPENED OVER TIME, AND SOME OF THIS HAS TO DO WITH THE UNION STRUCTURE AND RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE UNION AND STATE GOVERNMENT, BUT OVER TIME IT BECAME LIKE A CATCH BASIN.

IN OTHER WORDS, YOU SAW IN THAT VIDEO -- AGAIN, I HAVEN'T SEEN IT IN A LONG TIME, YOU SAW KIDS WITH DROWN SYNDROME, YOU SAW KIDS THAT WERE OBVIOUSLY PROFOUNDLY RETARDED IS THE WAY WE DESCRIBED THE POPULATION.

YOU SAW OTHERS WITH LESS SEVERE BUT STILL SIGNIFICANT DISABILITIES.

SO EVERYBODY WAS PUT TOGETHER AND THERE WAS NO REMEDIATION.

IT WAS CALLED A SCHOOL BUT THERE WAS NO EDUCATION OR REMEDIATION OR VOCATIONAL TRAINING.

THIS WAS NONE OF THAT.

I WAS READING ABOUT WILLOW GROVE BROOK AND THIS SURPRISED ME AS FAR BACK AS 1965, ROBERT KENNEDY HAD BEEN SPEAKING AGAINST WILLOWBROOK, ABOUT THE CONDITIONS IN WILLOWBROOK.

SO HOW DID IT LAST SO LONG?

HOW DID IT GO SO LONG AS IT WAS?

GREAT QUESTION.

THEY HAD A SCHEME, AND THE SCHEME WAS THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY.

IN OTHER WORDS, KENNEDY GOES IN 1965, ROBERT F. KENNEDY, SENATOR, GOES IN 1965.

HE SEES IT, CALLS IT A SNAKE PIT, BUT THERE'S NO PICTURES.

WHY ARE THERE NO PICTURES?

BECAUSE IT'S THE RIGHT OF PRIVACY OF THE RESIDENTS, INMATES, STUDENTS OR WHATEVER YOU WANT TO STYLIZE.

SO THE OUTRAGE IN HIS VOICE AND HIM BEING MOVED, ROBERT KENNEDY BEING MOVED, IT CAME AND IT WENT BECAUSE THERE'S NO NIGHTMARE HAUNTING IMAGE.

ONCE YOU SEE THEM --

IF YOU SAW WHAT WE SHOWED --

IT'S UNDENIABLE.

SUDDENLY, THERE'S NO OTHER SIDE TO THE STORY.

KENNEDY COMES, HE'S EMOTIONAL BUT THEN THE DIRECTOR COMES ON AND SAYS, WELL, YOU KNOW, I DISAGREE WITH THE SENATOR.

WE'RE DOING THIS OR THAT.

AND THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO THE STORY.

YOU SEE THE PICTURE, THERE'S ONLY ONE SIDE.

AND WHAT WAS ACTUALLY GOING ON IN THERE?

WAS IT JUST GROSS NEGLIGENCE OR WAS IT ACTUAL PHYSICAL AND SEXUAL ABUSE?

ALL OF THE ABUSE HAPPENED FOR SURE, BUT THE BIGGEST ABUSE WAS THE -- WAS THE CONCEPT THAT YOU COULD MASS PRODUCE CARE OF THE DISABLED IN THE WAY YOU MADE FORD MOTOR CARS, YOU KNOW, AN ASSEMBLY LINE.

OR YOU KEEP THEM ALL THERE AND NOW YOU LINE THEM UP, NOW YOU FEED THEM.

THEY FED THEM THIS KIND OF SLOP.

THE KIDS WOULD LIKE OPEN THEIR MOUTH AND THEY WOULD THROW A BIG GLUMP OF OATMEAL IN AND MOST WERE DYEING FROM PNEUMONIA BECAUSE OF THE WAY THEY WERE BEING FED.

THAT WAS THE SCHEME.

THE SCHEME WAS IT WAS BASICALLY A HOLDING PEN, A KENNEL FOR THESE -- FOR HUMANITY, DISGUISED AS A SCHOOL.

DID ANYBODY GO TO JAIL AS A RESULT OF YOUR REPORT?

NOBODY WENT TO JAIL BUT SOMETHING MUCH MORE SIGNIFICANT HAPPENED.

WHAT HAPPENED WAS THE MYTH THAT THIS STATE WAS DOING THE BEST IT COULD, THIS STATE, EVERY STATE, EVERY CIVILIZED NATION WAS DOING THE BEST THEY COULD WITH THIS POPULATION WITH THESE INSTITUTIONS.

THAT MYTH WAS EXPOSED.

AND IT BEGAN A MOVEMENT WHERE THERE WAS NO LONGER PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY THAT WE WERE DOING THE BEST WE COULD IN A DIFFICULT SITUATION.

NOW EVERYONE KNEW THAT THE INSTITUTION WAS NO WAY TO CARE FOR THOSE POPULATION.

IT ABSOLUTELY BEGAN THE END OF THE INSTITUTIONAL ERA THAT HAD EXISTED SINCE BEDLAM IN THE UNITED KINGDOM IN THE 19th CENTURY.

SO THAT'S WHAT ENDED.

WHAT BEGAN AS A RESULT OF THIS REPORT?

IT IS RARE THAT THERE IS A HAPPY ENDING TO THESE STORIES.

IT'S ALSO RARE THAT TELEVISION NEWS IS ENGAGED IN THE PROCESS OF POSITIVE SOCIAL CHANGE.

SO EASY TO DO AN EXPOSE, COMPLAIN ABOUT SOMETHING, MOVE ON, NEXT STORY, ANOTHER EXPOSE.

HERE'S A FIRE, HERE'S A TERRIBLE THING, NEXT.

IN THIS CASE WE KNEW WHAT THE SOLUTION WAS, THE SOLUTION WAS SMALL COMMUNITY-BASED RESIDENCES WHERE THIS POPULATION RATHER THAN BEING STUCK IN THESE WARDS, SCORES OF THEM, PEOPLE COULD LIVE THREE, FOUR, FIVE SIX IN A RESIDENCE, IN A HOME, IN A REAL HOME, A HOUSE/HOME WITH BASICALLY ONE-TO-ONE ATTENTION WHERE THEIR HUMAN POTENTIAL COULD BE REALIZED, WHERE THEY COULD LEARN TO SEW OR WORK AT FAST FOOD OR DO WHATEVER IT IS THAT THEY WERE ABLE TO DO, THEY GOT TRAINING, THEY GOT REMEDIATION, THEY GOT COUNSELING, THEY GOT MUCH BETTER PHYSICAL CARE.

AND IT REALLY CHANGED THE WORLD AND THE INSTITUTIONS BEGAN CLOSING IN THIS STATE, MORE PROGRESSIVE BLUE STATES FIRST AND THEN SWEPT THE NATION AND REALLY SWEPT THE CIVILIZED WORLD.

AND HOW DID THIS REPORT, YOU DOING THIS REPORT, CHANGE YOUR LIFE?

OH, MY GOODNESS, IT WAS A CHANGE -- I THINK THAT -- I DON'T WANT TO GET ALL EMOTIONAL AGAIN, BUT FOR A LONG TIME, RAPHE, FOR A LONG TIME I LIVED WITH A GUILTY FEELING THAT MY LIFE HAD CHANGED FAR MORE THAN THEIR LIVES, THE LIVES OF THE RESIDENTS OF WILLOWBROOK.

BECAUSE IT MADE YOU.

BECAUSE I BECAME A STAR.

I BECAME KIND OF -- IT WAS A GO-GO ERA WHERE I SUDDENLY BECAME THE GOLDEN BOY OF THE CITY AND OF THE UNDERPRIVILEGED.

AND IT REALLY WAS -- I MEAN, YOU HAVE TO LIVE UP TO IT AND THAT KIND OF FAME IS FLEETING, BUT IT WAS DEFINITELY, IT WAS A SHOCKINGLY PROFOUND DIFFERENCE IN MY PERSONAL LIFE.

BUT YOU ALSO, YOU DIDN'T ABANDON THE PEOPLE THAT YOU COVERED IN WILLOWBROOK, RIGHT?

YOU TOOK ACTION.

TELL US ABOUT WILLOWBROOK.

WELL, THE FIRST THING WE DID IS NOW WE HAD THE IDEA OF THE SMALL COMMUNITY-BASED RESIDENCE, MOST OF THE PROGRESSIVE PEOPLE IN THE FIELD SAID THAT WAS THE WAY TO DO IT.

BUT NOW YOU HAD TO MAKE MONEY TO FUND THESE RESIDENCES, SO THAT BECAME MY CAUSE.

THAT BECAME MY CRUSADE, MY CRUSADE TO FUND THESE HOMES, THE ONE-TO-ONE TYPE HOMES WHERE THE POPULATION COULD THRIVE IN A WAY.

SO FIRST, YOU KNOW, I WAS FRIENDS WITH JOHN LENNON AND YOKO AT THE TIME.

JOHN'S 75th BIRTHDAY JUST BEING RECOGNIZED NOW.

IMAGINE 35 YEARS AGO, SUCH A SIN.

HE'S A DEAR FRIEND.

AND JOHN'S LAST CONCERT OF HIS LIFE WAS THE TWO ONE-TO-ONE CONCERTS AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN THAT MADE HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS.

THEN WE STARTED WITH TELETHONS.

THEN I DID WALL STREET BOXING MATCHES WHERE I WOULD FIGHT WHOEVER THEIR DESIGNATED CHAMPION WAS.

THAT WAS IN MADISON SQUARE GARDEN ALSO.

IT'S A CAUSE THAT I'M INTIMATELY INVOLVED IN TO THIS VERY DAY.

I JUST DID 'CELEBRITY APPRENTICE.'

ALL THE MONEY I MADE WENT TO THIS CAUSE AND IN THIS CASE THE AGENCY OF LIFE'S WORK.

THERE ARE OTHERS I'M INVOLVED IN.

LIFE'S WORK, QUEENS, NEW YORK, NASSAU COUNTY BASED ORGANIZATION OF PARENTS, THEY OPENED MORE THAN 40 OF THESE HOMES.

THERE ARE SCORES OF THEM IN NEW YORK STATE AND NEW JERSEY AND CONNECTICUT, ALL OVER THE COUNTRY.

AND I BELIEVE THAT IT IS THE GREATEST CONTRIBUTION I HAVE EVER MADE IN MY 45 YEARS OF PUBLIC LIFE.

I'M VERY PROUD OF IT AND IT'S SOMETHING I WILL GO TO THE GRAVE.

I'M ENGAGED NOW IN THE COLLEGE OF STATEN ISLAND, WHICH WAS BUILT ON THE GROUND OF WILLOWBROOK.

AND THEY TELL ME THEY WANT TO NAME A SCHOOL OF SOCIAL WORK AFTER ME, AND I WANT TO BE BURIED THERE ALSO.

IT'S SOMETHING THAT IT WAS THE BEGINNING IN ONE WAY AND LET IT END THAT WAY.

GERALDO RIVERA, THANK YOU SO MUCH.

IT'S BEEN A PLEASURE.

©2022 WNET. All Rights Reserved. 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019

WNET is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Tax ID: 26-2810489