Apr 122024

My brother spent about fifteen years of his life at Willowbrook, the place that Robert F. Kennedy called ‘a snake pit’ in 1965. When Kennedy visited the site, he was horrified by what he saw and stated that “individuals in the overcrowded facility were living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo.”

Overcrowding and understaffing are what compiled the problems of Willowbrook. I don’t necessarily believe that there was intentional abuse and neglect, although, in institutions such as these, and human nature being what it is, such things do happen.

Dr. Michael Wilkins came to New York in 1967 to complete his medical residency as a pediatric intern and was recruited to Willowbrook by a friend also working there at the time, Dr. Bronston, and began advocating for change. Governor Nelson Rockefeller had just instituted large budget cuts that eliminated staff at Willowbrook, which was already insufficient. They held Sunday meetings outside on the grounds with the parents who were interested. They even let them into the back rooms to see for themselves.
After only seventeen months working at Willowbrook, Dr. Wilkins was fired for his efforts to organize parents. Fortunately, when he was fired, they had never asked for his keys. This is when he contacted his friend, a  relatively unknown investigative reporter for WABC TV in New York in 1972 named Geraldo Rivera  and let him and his camera crew in to document the place for posterity and to change history.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed citizens can change the world. 
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
~ Margaret Mead

The Path Forward is a film released in 2022 by the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, commemorating fifty years since Geraldo Rivera’s exposure of Willowbrook State School in 1972. It highlights the importance of lessons learned, the positive changes that have resulted in the past fifty years, and to make sure that it never happens again.

The College of Staten Island (CUNY) is now located on the site of Willowbrook. Instead of hiding the atrocities that happened on this land, to their credit, motivated by the conviction that it should never be forgotten and that nothing like this should ever happen again, they have embraced it, educated the community, and built a Memorial Walking Trail called the Willowbrook Mile, consisting of twelve stations that mark the history of the site, with benches and landscaping. It opened officially on September 17, 2022, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the closing of Willowbrook. This unique project aims to preserve the site’s history and create a visionary presence commemorating the continuing struggle for social justice for all people of all abilities.

Willowbrook is an excerpt from Marlene Dunham’s book, EMBRACING THE SHADOWS.