Day 1176

A Promise Fulfilled

March 20th, 2015

This plaque at the College of Staten Island, dated September 17, 1987, reads:


The institution once known as the Willowbrook State School, which occupied this site for thirty-six years, was closed in 1987.

The end of this institution symbolizes the success and appropriateness of New York State's commitment to provide an extensive and comprehensive program of community living opportunities for its citizens with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.
What was the Willowbrook State School? As we learned a few months ago:
The Willowbrook State School was the country's largest state-run institution for the mentally disabled. By the 1960s, it had over 6,000 residents, 2,000 more than it was designed to accommodate. Underfunded and understaffed, it "offered a mean, often desperate existence" to the people who lived there. After a visit in 1965, Bobby Kennedy described the place as "border[ing] on a snake pit".

But it wasn't until 1972 that the wretched conditions at Willowbrook were brought into the national spotlight, when a TV reporter named Geraldo Rivera snuck into one of the wards with a handheld camera and documented the awful scene: "children lying naked on the floor, their bodies contorted, their feces spread on walls".

This prompted a lawsuit that led to the eventual closing of the institution in 1987. Many of the buildings were taken over and renovated by the College of Staten Island, which opened a new campus — the largest college campus in the city — on the site in 1993.
So that makes two plaques here at CSI that acknowledge Willowbrook's existence. One, half-hidden behind a rose bush at the back corner of a building, does at least pay tribute, albeit in very vague and euphemistic terms, to all the helpless people who suffered abuse and neglect at this state-run institution. The other plaque, above, located in a little treed area near the middle of campus, makes no mention of the poor souls who lived here but instead just offers the state government a nice pat on the back for finally shutting the place down (after being sued into submission).

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