STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – In 1972, America was finally getting out of Vietnam. Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China, and a news story stunned the nation. Inside the idyllic looking Willowbrook School on New York’s Staten Island, conditions were shocking.
Willowbrook was a state-run human warehouse. More than 5,000 mentally ill and physically disabled children and adults lived in dirt and filth. Often left naked due to lack of caretakers, the helpless children and adults were locked inside building after building, sleeping on cots and given no education.
Dr. Michael Wilkins of Missouri exposed the shocking treatment of mentally ill and disabled people Willowbrook, which led to laws that protected disabled Americans.
Wilkins, who worked at Willowbrook, knew change was needed. New York Senator Robert Kennedy had visited the facility and called it a “snake pit.” Unfortunately, New York state was in the midst of a budget crisis, forcing them to cut workers. The inhumane treatment worsened as a result.
Wilkins said staffers had just three minutes to feed each person in their care, tilting some patients’ heads back like baby birds to feed them mush. The bathing process was little more than a hose.
After 17 months on the job at Willowbrook, Wilkins was fired for organizing parents. But administrators never secured Wilkins’ key to ‘Building 6’ where he worked.
Wilkins reached out to a young and eager reporter named Geraldo Rivera to shine a light on the mistreatment.
Wilkins admitted a part of him was worried about blowing the whistle, but he ultimately didn’t care.
“I figured the world isn’t that screwed up that they think this is okay,” he said.
After Rivera’s story went public, parents had public support. The parents sued Willowbrook and won. The case brought the first federal civil rights law to protect people with disabilities and later the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rivera referred to Wilkins’ brave act of whistleblowing as the story of a lifetime.
As for Dr. Wilkins, he moved home to practice medicine in Kansas City. He said he suffered post-traumatic stress for several months afterwards.
He said he found one lifelong joy during that awful time: patient Bernard Carabello.
“(Bernard) was smart. Should have been a stand-up comedian,” Wilkins said. “He would hold court in the break room. He had all the gossip.”
Carabello left Willowbrook after 18 years after being misdiagnosed as mentally retarded. He went on to work for New York state for years, placing former Willowbrook residents in group homes.
Willowbrook’s prison-like wards finally closed in 1987. It’s been transformed into the College of State Island.