Willowbrook, the institution that shocked a nation into changing its laws

By Matt Reimann: For Complete Post, Click Here…

When World War II ended, a large Staten Island facility on 375 acres of land faced an uncertain future. Some believed that Willowbrook should be used for the care of disabled veterans, but ultimately the preferences of New York governor Thomas Dewey won out. Dewey argued that there were thousands of children in the state who were “mentally and physically defective and feeble minded, who never can become members of society,” who needed to be cared for with a “high degree of tenderness and affection.” On this last matter, the institution would utterly fail: In the coming decades, Willowbrook would become synonymous for social injustice, moral abhorrence, and the glaring failures of the state psychiatric system.

The Willowbrook State School opened on October, 1947, admitting 20 mentally disabled patients from upstate institutions. In only a short time, Willowbrook was overfilled and understaffed. By 1955, it had reached its full capacity of 4,000 occupants. Around that time, hepatitis infections ran rampant among patients and staff. Only a short time later, in 1960, an outbreak of measles killed 60 patients.

Yet these snapshots fail to convey the wretched and abhorrent conditions Willowbrook patients lived under. Despite its name as a “school,” there was barely any educational structure at Willowbrook. When teaching did happen, it was only for a handful of cooperative students, and only for around two hours per day.

Most of the Willowbrook experience was defined by constant neglect, a condition that the overstressed and underfunded staff were not necessarily responsible for. In some buildings, the mentally disabled were let to huddle in rooms, moaning, fidgeting, meandering, all with little care or resources. Many went naked for lack of clothing and supervision. Others sat drenched in their urine and feces, and some smeared them on the walls and on their clothes, with no available garments to replace them. Sexual and physical abuse at the hands of fellow patients and employees was common, as was disease.

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