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Conditions At The Willowbrook Mental Asylum Were So Deplorable They Changed Federal Policy

Updated July 24, 2019 1.1m views12 items

For 40 years, Willowbrook State School, also known as the Willowbrook Mental Hospital, operated as an institution for mentally disabled children and adults. The conditions at Willowbrook Asylum were beyond deplorable. An exposé done by a young Geraldo Rivera and some comments from Robert Kennedy brought the overcrowded and understaffed conditions at Willowbrook to public attention, leading to a number of different forms of legislation.

During this unearthing of the horrors of Willowbrook, the public became aware of the Willowbrook State School hepatitis study, a heartless experiment that involved infecting the unaware patients with the disease, then testing out a number of potential cures. Although the asylum shut down in 1987, its legacy is one of ethics reform and the Willowbrook hepatitis study – not to mention Cropsey

  • Patients Died Of Preventable Causes On A Regular Basis

    Many of the patients at Willowbrook died in preventable ways. The ones not purposely infected with hepatitis died in easily avoidable ways, such as choking on their meals. Measles and influenza outbreaks frequently occurred, and some patients simply withered away from neglect and lack of sanitation. Not to mention the fact that only two or three staff members were available for every 70 patients. 

    If the buildings were less crowded, and the staff cleaned the place regularly and paid attention to their charges, most of these deaths could have been circumvented. 

  • Robert Kennedy Spoke Out Against It

    Photo: Warren K. Leffler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    By the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Willowbrook received significant negative attention from politicians and the media alike. The first person to speak against the conditions at the "school" was Robert Kennedy, who visited in 1965 and called it a "snake pit," reportedly, not only because of the horrible conditions in which he found the patients, but also because of the vile smell that allegedly permeated the grounds.

    Even after his statement, however, it took several years before a larger exposé took place and policy changes were made.

  • In 1972, Geraldo Rivera Write An Exposé On Willowbrook

    Photo: ABC Television / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    Seven years after Robert Kennedy's visit and public denouncement of Willowbrook, Geraldo Rivera, then a young reporter with Eyewitness News, and a print journalist named Jane Kurtin put together a short segment exposing the real conditions of the institution.

    When it aired publicly, people were outraged. Rivera went on to do several more pieces about Willowbrook, and he even wrote a book about the facility.

  • A Number Of Lawsuits Filed On Behalf Of The People At Willowbrook Led To A Review Panel

    The parents and legal guardians of people institutionalized at Willowbrook filed a class action lawsuit against the institution shortly after the Geraldo Rivera documentary. The suit required that something be done as soon as possible to improve the institution's conditions. Although that suit was dismissed, another, a joint lawsuit under the civil rights laws filed by the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union, was more successful.

    This lawsuit led to the Willowbrook Consent Decree, a legal agreement that forced the state of New York to place Willowbrook's patients in new homes and workshops where conditions were much better and learning actually took place. The consent decree created the Willowbrook Review Panel, who made sure that the terms of the agreement were followed.