Teacher’s sneak preview: The horrifying truth uncovered: Willowbrook State School

This article will be published on DisAbility Rights Galaxy on October 15, 2014.

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Question: True or False? Willowbrook State School closed within a year of Geraldo Rivera’s 1972 investigative report that exposed terrible mistreatment of residents with disabilities.

Answer: False. Willowbrook State School did not close until 1987. It is now the location of a college campus in Staten Island, New York, where Geraldo Rivera gave a commencement speech this past spring.


black and white photo of an empty hallway with a wheelchair
Geraldo Rivera exposes conditions at institution

Bernard Carabello was 21 years old when he left Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York in 1972. Carabello was diagnosed as “mentally retarded” at three years old, and Willowbrook was all he had ever known. Like so many parents at that time, faced with limited options, and wanting to do what was best for their children, Carabello’s mother followed a doctor’s advice and had him admitted to the institution. As Carabello explained in 2007, “my mother didn’t know how to speak English … and at that time, there were no kind of services like they have today.” Indeed, Bernard Carabello’s mother had no way of knowing the terrible events that would follow.

The exposure of Willowbrook State School’s incredibly squalid conditions began in 1965, when Robert Kennedy called the institution a “snake pit” and called for reform. At that time, the facility designed for no more than 4,000 residents was populated by more than 6,000. Resident-to-attendant ratios neared fifty-to-one. Despite Kennedy’s call for change, however, conditions at Willowbrook worsened if anything by the time Geraldo Rivera ran his now-famous expository news piece in 1972.

Rivera, now an established journalist with his own television show, was a new up-and-coming journalist at the time. He received a call from a doctor who had just been fired from Willowbrook and was now looking to expose the institution. He gave Rivera a key to building 6, and before the attendants knew what was happening Rivera was inside the building and recording revealing footage. “The doctor had warned me that it would be bad … it was horrible,” said Rivera of the conditions he witnessed upon entering the facility. Filming the actual conditions with the residents as background, Rivera did everything he could to describe the horror before him. “This is what it looked like, this is what it sounded like. But how can I tell you about the way it smelled? It smelled of filth, it smelled of disease, and it smelled of death.”

Rivera’s 28-minute news report would shock the nation, and before long, every news network imaginable was covering the same story, along with quickly published articles in The New York Times and The Village Voice. Willowbrook had become a national disgrace, and details of the mistreatment of people with disabilities spread like wildfire across America.

As Bernard Carabello described, the mistreatment went beyond neglect. “I got beaten with sticks, belt buckles. I got my head kicked into the wall by staff … most of the kids sat in the day room naked, with no clothes on. There was a lot of sexual abuse going on from staff to residents, also.” Willowbrook State School’s former “students” do not remember their time there as “students,” or even as “patients.” Instead, many look back on their time there as one might look at a period of incarceration in a prison.

Judy Moiseff, a former resident at Willowbrook for eight years, remembers: “Once the child was admitted to Willowbrook, the parents were not allowed inside.” Residents would rarely shower, and were rarely taught hygiene and grooming skills at all. As Moiseff describes, residents would shower together in a single shower room, and were only given five minutes to clean themselves without soap, toothpaste, or individual towels. Without enough attendants to supervise or work with the residents, many of the people living there failed to learn or lost social and behavioral skills.

Although Willowbrook was technically called a school, the name hardly fit. Moiseff remembers attending class no more than a few times, eventually being left and forgotten with nobody to wheel her to the classroom. The only times that residents would be allowed outside were during the summer, but only when it was “too dangerously hot to stay in the building”.

People living at Willowbrook quickly had their spirits crushed upon arrival. “I had no dreams about my future, no plans for a grown up life,” Moiseff recounts. Residents at Willowbrook were never taught to dream. These children were instead left without anyone to talk to, trapped in a downward spiral of meaningless existence.

Due to incredible strength of willpower, however, Bernard Carabello would eventually leave Willowbrook behind and move on with his life. After leaving the institution in 1972, Carabello went on to work for the government of the State of New York, and still does today. He lives in his Manhattan apartment, and leads a full life despite the horrors of his early life. It would later be discovered that Bernard Carabello was misdiagnosed as “mentally retarded.” Carabello’s cerebral palsy has primarily affected his physical motor skills and speech.

The experiences of Bernard Carabello and Judy Moseiff at Willowbrook State School were unfortunately not unique among people residing in institutions of the time. Abuse and neglect had been common for decades, and instances of abuse and neglect can still be found in institutional settings today. One of the most important steps in a successful civil rights movement is acknowledging where we as a society have been in order to correct the mistakes of the past and improve systems as we move forward. The disability rights movement is no different. The experiences of people like Carabello and Moiseff are a reminder to us all of what is possible when people are denied their civil rights. The Protection and Advocacy network, of which Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Disability Rights Galaxy, is a member, was established by Congress to rectify such issues today.


Discussion Questions

Willowbrook was called Willowbrook State School. Despite it’s name, there was little to no education that occurred. How would you contrast the way that people with disabilities were educated then versus today?

How are children with disabilities treated by their peers in your school? By their teachers?

What is your opinion about integrated education, where children who are developing typically and children with disabilities learn alongside each other?

What impact do you think an experience like living at Willowbrook would have on someone’s life, mentally and emotionally?

What can you compare the mistreatment of people in institutions like Willowbrook to today? What does it remind you of?

What do you think the role of journalism is in social change?


Primary Sources

Rivera, Geraldo, prod. Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace. WABC-TV Channel 7. Staten Island, New York, 1972. Television.

My Willowbrook Experience. Judy Moseiff. YouTube, 1 Apr. 2013. Web.

Forgotten Lives: Bernard. Bernard Carabello. YouTube. Joshua Tate, 9 July 2007. Web.

Secondary Sources

Rothman, David J., and Sheila M. Rothman. The Willowbrook Wars: Bringing the Mentally Disabled into the Community. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction, 2005. Print.