Willowbrook State School

This is another case I discovered while I was watching American Horror Story. The Asylum season is set at the fictional Briarcliff Manor. While watching the season, I thought that the facility was awful and it could not be real. But it got my wheels turning, so I looked it up and found Willowbrook. Willowbrook was an awful facility for disabled children, located in Staten Island, New York.

Disclosure: This story includes talk of mental health issues, horrible experiments and the upsetting abuse of young children. If any of these subjects are a trigger for please take care of yourself, and check out some of my other stories! I Never victim blame nor do I make excuses for people who commit these horrendous crimes. I believe in learning from these tragic events; everything is a lesson and I think its important to look at suspects and their history to look at why this happened and how it can be avoided in the future.

Construction of Destruction

In the Willowbrook area of Staten Island,in 1938, a school for intellectually disabled children. The plans lie on 375 acres (a little over 1.5 million square meters). By the time construction completed, plans were changed to open an United States Army hospital. In 1942, the Halloran General Hospital was completed and opened. The hospital was named after the Colonel Paul Stacey Halloran. Paul served in the army as a surgeon and had an amicable reputation.He passed away at a party with friends, on April 21, 1931, roughly 11 years before given the honor of the namesake of this military hospital.

During the height of the hospital’s run, 2.500 soldiers would be seen on any given day. When World War II ended, in 1945, the hospital was transformed to a veteran’s hospital, then ultimately closed in 1951. The hospital was them converted into the facility it originally intended to be and was named Willowbrook State School.

Torture in the Name of Science

Hepatitis outbreaks, ran rampant following World War II. During the fifties, outbreaks of Hepatitis A became very common at the school. This led to medical researchers carrying out awful studies by Saul Krugman and Robert McCollum. Saul was a researcher and physician whose unethical studies helped develop vaccinations for Rubella, Measles, and hepatitis. Robert was a virologist and epidemiologist who helped to create the Polio Vaccine.

Saul discovered that 90 percent of children at Willowbrook had developed Hepatitis, but could not figure out how it spread through the body, how to prevent it, and the cause of the virus. Saul used the opportunity of having vulnerable children to test these studies. This included a disgusting study where Saul fed six unaffected children the live virus from affected stool samples. He fed these children literal crap, then he continued to watch them get sick. Their eyes and skin turned jaundice, their livers increased, they began to vomit and could not eat. Saul reasoned that it was justifiable, because most of them would probably get Hepatitis anyway, but in doing this he increased the number of infected to 100 percent. This study did end up finding a vaccination and understanding the disease, but at what cause. The study was discontinued after public outcry became very vocal.

Further Mistreatment Leads to Change

By 1965, Willowbrook was overcrowded with 6,000 children, when the capacity was at 4,000, which is a 50% over capacity. In 1965, senator Robert F. Kennedy visited the school and described disabled patients as living in filth, children wearing rags and unclean and that their rooms were worse than cages at zoos. Robert also had suggestions to make it better, but it is clear that changes were not made. The reputation of the school was a warehouse full of disabled children who were unwanted and abandoned by their parents and the system. More attention got brought to Willowbrook when child abuse advocate Donna J. Stone got access to the school and told the press about the atrocities that she witnessed. This led to the first reporter to write about the school, Jane Kurtin, which led to protests from social workers and parents of the residents.

In early 1972, legendary Geraldo Rivera investigated the school and reported on the awful events that were occurring there. He created an expose called Willowbrook: The last Disgrace, in the same year. The expose received national attention and Geraldo earned a Peabody award. This assisted a class-action lawsuit against the state of New York by 5,000 residents’ parents on March 17, 1972.

In 1975, a consent judgment was signed to place the now “Willowbrook Class” to new facilities. The movement of residents was supposed to be a new start and better situation, but unfortunately that did not happen. The residents that are still alive, over two-thousand, still suffer mistreatment. The events led to the Civil Rights of Institutional Persons Act of 1980 to get put into place.

Closure and Aftermath

In 1983, it was announced that Willowbrook would be closed by the state of New York, which changed the name to the Staten Island Developmental center in 1974. The number of children decreased to 250 by March of 1986. On September 17, 1987, the last group of children left the school. After the closure, it was highly debated what should be done with the school, and the land turned was inquired for a campus for the College of Staten Island in 1989, and opened 1993.

In 1991, retired detective Paul Ragonese released a book, called The soul of a Cop. He talks about responded to the abandoned building as part of the Bomb Squad. There they found explosive picric crystals and jars of human organs. Paul also claims that this was heavily covered up by law enforcement.

There are three major incidents involving prior residents and staff. In the 1960s, the infamous Andre Rand worked at the school as a custodian. I plan on doing a case of him in the next week or two, but basically he is a child sex offender and also has kidnapping charger and first degree murder. The next event was there was a residential fire, in 2009, where four former residents died sadly. I want to end to list incidents with a recommendation. Former resident Anthony Torrene wrote a prayer book, called Anthony’s Prayers that was inspired by his time at the hellhole that was Willowbrook.

Final Thoughts

This case was very upsetting. I did not include pictures of the residents, because the events are very disturbing so figured the pictures could be very unsettling. I feel as though these events did not need to happen. But this is just one of many facilities that abused the vulnerable, due to the false belief that these people did not matter. My biggest question is how did the families just drop off their children and not notice their children’s condition, but they cared enough to sue. Stuff like this continues to happen at mental health facilities today, just not as extreme, but just as horrible. We need to start treating individuals with disabilities and mental illnesses as people and the whole system needs an overhaul.

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