Broken Trust: A Cycle of Abuse
Episode 27: ‘The Promise’
Producer/Director Sweta Vohra
The shocking images of children lying naked on the floor in front of feces-smeared walls at a state institution seemed impossible to forget. And the reaction to Geraldo Rivera’s 1972 news broadcast from the institution, the Willowbrook State School, was quick and severe. Lawsuits were filed, leading to a landmark settlement in which New York State agreed to shut down the Staten Island institution for children with developmental disabilities. It was a major civil rights victory that ultimately helped to end the warehousing of people with disabilities.
Under the settlement, the so-called Willowbrook class were assured high quality services and protection from harm for the rest of their lives. But a New York Times investigation reveals that the state failed to make good on its promise. Our reporter got access to a trove of documents that show some of those children faced the same cycle of abuse as adults living in a group home in the Bronx.
“The Weekly” investigates how and why the state failed to protect these residents, and what happens when society forgets about its most vulnerable.
Benjamin Weiser covers the Manhattan federal courts for The New York Times, and he has long reported on the criminal justice system. Before joining The Times in 1997, he worked for 18 years at The Washington Post, where he received the George Polk Award for a 1983 series on life-and-death decisions in hospitals and the Livingston Award for a 1986 series on Washington’s juvenile justice system. He has been a finalist, either as an individual or in a team capacity, for the Pulitzer Prize three times.
[This episode will be available to Times subscribers in the U.S. on March 28.]
Geraldo Rivera’s bombshell 1972 report about Willowbrook sparked outrage across the country. He described the Staten Island institution’s treatment of residents like “the Big Town’s leper colony.”
The same year, class-action lawsuits were filed against Willowbrook, and later hearings revealed conditions that went beyond what Rivera reported. Staffing was insufficient, there were food shortages and, according to witness testimony, three patients in four months in 1974 choked to death while eating.
A settlement was reached in 1975 and a federal judge gave the state six years to clean up the facility. Though there were improvements, the state failed to meet the judge’s deadline. In 1987, a federal judge signed an agreement to close the institution.
The so-called Willowbrook class met in 2000 at a commemoration of their lawsuit. But many of the 450 present — lawyers, doctors, administrators and some class members — said that group homes needed to be managed better to protect residents.
In 2016, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of three residents of Union Avenue I.R.A., a group home in the Bronx, against state officials and staff members for allegations of abuse. The Times found that when officials tried to fire 13 employees for abuse or neglect at the home, they failed each time.
In 2019, New York State agreed to pay $6 million to settle that lawsuit, according to settlement papers.
Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Director of Photography Victor Tadashi-Suarez
Video Editor David Herr
Associate Producer Lora Moftah
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