My brother, Michael is autistic, very low functioning and has never spoken. He is about 3 years older than me. I am 4 years older than my younger brother. Our family lived together until Mike was 13 years old. From the time Mike was born, he never progressed. He couldn’t take care of himself and it was becoming a very difficult for Mom. She looked everywhere trying to find a place where he could be taken care of. One of our distant relatives told my parents about Willowbrook State School, a large mental institution on Staten Island in New York State. That’s where they brought Michael to live.
I never actually went far inside the ward area when we went to see Mike at Willowbrook. There was something ominous about it. The red brick buildings were multi-storied structures with numbers mounted in circular plaques at the top of the steps, just out of reach. They reminded me of a movie: Stalag 17. Mike’s building may even have been number 17.
I would sometimes hear what sounded like shouts or howls. They rose out of the unknown parts of the building and echoed through the cavernous halls. I used to wait in the nurse’s office with Dad when the staff went to get Mike. The smell that assaulted my nose was peculiar. Not a hospital smell, but more like a mixture of antiseptic and fecal matter.
What was going on?
I never knew that in 1965, Robert F. Kennedy said that Willowbrook was a snake pit. At least I don’t remember knowing. Mom and Dad used to get calls that Mike fell down, got his teeth knocked out, or sustained other assorted bruises and cuts. The staff always blamed the incidents on other patients. Mom never believed this. My parents probably had a good idea that the place was a snake pit. What could they do.
In 1972, Geraldo Rivera exposed the corruption and abusive treatment patients were receiving. Maybe that is why I never got to go past the nurse’s station. Abuse must have been happening just beyond what I could see. Or maybe the let up on visiting days.
A court decision mandated the break up of Willowbrook. From 1975 to 1987, the 6,000 patients were relocated to developmental centers and group homes. Mike went from the Brooklyn Developmental Center to one of the group homes. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I have been witness to Mike’s treatment in this environment. I was consulted about his treatment and asked to participate in his care.
In my experience, there is no comparison between the care provided in a group home setting versus care delivered by a big institution. Large mental institutions are warehouses for human beings who can’t care for themselves. We should never allow them to come back.