Willowbrook State School, built in the late 1930’s, was a state-supported institution for mentally retarded children located in central Staten Island in New York City. The school did not receive its first residents, however, until after World War II, during which time it was used as a veteran’s hospital for injured and disabled war heroes. A combination of rising placements, budget cuts, ignorance, arrogance and indifference, created notorious conditions at Willowbrook. The school gained notoriety in the 1960’s for an unethical medical study conducted there. By 1965, with over 6,000 residents in an institution planned for just 4,000, Senator Robert Kennedy was calling Willowbrook a “snake pit,” yet however at this time public involvement was limited and conditions continued to worsen. It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that further abuses were uncovered at the school, becoming the stimulus for new civil rights legislation. In November 1971, The Staten Island Advance published a series of articles detailing the horrible conditions at the school. Following these articles, in January 1972, Geraldo Rivera, the television reporter, began a series of programs that shook the conscience of New York State and the nation and inspired parents and others to take legal action. The end result was the signing of a consent judgment in federal court in 1975.
The Consent Judgment has been called “revolutionary” because of what it accomplished and for what it inspired. The closure of Willowbrook, the placement of individuals with developmental disabilities in community residences, the growth of voluntary agencies and the expansion of day programs and special education can all be linked to the Judgment. The Judgment finally recognized and enforced the rights of individuals with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. And is now the model used throughout the United States and in many parts of the world.
The school was finally closed in 1987, and the former grounds were redeveloped extensively to serve as the campus of the College of Staten Island. Many of the buildings were knocked down due to their excessive neglect and need for major repair. However, many of the original buildings are still standing, formly residential buildings housing young girls and boys. These buildings are now used for offices and classrooms on both the North and South sides of the campus. The smoke stack and M buildings near the Victory Blouvard entrance are also originals. Years ago, these buildings were used for laundry services, preparing meals, which included a bakery, storage of food as well as other needed services. Willowbrook State School was a city within a city, quite self-sufficient in the daily running of the Institution, it did not require many services from outside it’s walls, therefore isolating itself and its’s residents from the community even more so. Today, these same buildings are used to process mail at the college and recently renovated, Staten Island’s new International High School opened in 2005.
In 1938, plans were formulated to build a facility for mentally retarded children on a 375 acres (1.5 km²) site in the Willowbrook section of the 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 the war, 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 were common at the school, and this led to a highly controversial medical study being conducted there between 1963 and 1966, in which healthy children were intentionally injected with the virus that causes the disease.
These studies were designed to gain an understanding of the natural history of infectious hepatitis and subsequently to test the effects of gamma globulin in preventing or combating the disease.
The subjects, all children, were deliberately infected with the hepatitis virus; early subjects were fed extracts of stools from infected individuals and later subjects received injections of more purified virus preparations. Investigators defended the deliberate injection of these children by pointing out that the vast majority of them acquired the infection anyway while at Willowbrook, and perhaps it would be better for them to be infected under carefully controlled research conditions.
During the course of these studies, Willowbrook closed its doors to new patients, claiming overcrowded conditions. However, the hepatitis program, because it occupied its own space at the institution, was able to continue to admit new patients. Thus, in some cases, parents found that they were unable to admit their child to Willowbrook unless they agreed to his or her participation in the studies. This case caused a public outcry forcing the study to be discontinued because of the perception that parents and their children were given little choice about whether or not to participate in research.
More Scandals and Abuses
During the several decades that Willowbrook was opened, there were continuous allegations of abuse reported on by the local paper, The Staten Island Advance. For many years, these allegations were dismissed and Willowbrook continued to uphold its well-respected reputation in the community.
However by early 1972, Geraldo Rivera, then a reporter for television station WABC in New York, conducted a series of investigations at Willowbrook (on the heels of a previous series of articles in the Staten Island Advance and Staten Island Register newspapers), uncovering a host of deplorable conditions, including overcrowding, inadequate sanitary facilities, and physical abuse of residents by members of the school's staff. This resulted in a class-action lawsuit being filed against the State of New York in federal court on March 17, 1972. A settlement in the case was reached on May 5, 1975, mandating reforms at the site, but several years would elapse before all of the violations were corrected. The publicity generated by the case was a major contributing factor to the passage of a federal law, called 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 (down from 5,000 at the height of the scandal exposed by Rivera), 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. The new campus opened at Willowbrook in 1993 (at the same time, one of CSI's two other existing campuses, located in the island's Sunnyside neighborhood, was closed and that site became the home of a new high school). At 204 acres, this campus is the largest maintained by the City University of New York.
The remaining 171 acres of the state school's original property, at the south end, is still under the administration of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, which maintains a facility there called the Institute For Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities. At the Institution research is conducted on Down Syndrome, Autism, Alzheimer’s Disease and many rare diseases.