50 Years Since “The Last Great Disgrace”: A Former Willowbrook Resident Remembers

By: Johanna Elattar 

The morning sun is shining through the windows of my mother’s small Brooklyn apartment. It feels like it’ll be a scorching August day, and I’ve been up for hours. I live in upstate New York, but I love coming back to Brooklyn to visit my mother, and to spend a few days in the city. The landline she refuses to get rid of rings and I quickly answer it. I recognize the voice on the other end right away: It’s Bettina, or Betty, as everyone calls her. My mother had mentioned to her that I’d be in Brooklyn, and she’s calling to invite me over to her home for coffee and cake. I tell her that I’ll be there by noon.

Betty lives in a tiny, one story house in Sheepshead Bay, but probably not for long. She’d shared the place with her 96-year-old aunt until about 6 months ago, when her aunt passed away. Most likely, Betty will be made to move to a group home. Betty suffers from speech and learning disabilities, and she has issues with her motor skills, plus a seizure disorder. Living alone wouldn’t be easy for her, even though she has an attendant that comes to help and check on her daily. At 66 years old, Betty is a survivor, having lived for many years at the notorious Willowbrook State School. 

I first met Betty through my mother. Betty and her aunt were regular customers at the supermarket where my mother worked. They’d come in to do their shopping, and Betty would talk to my mom. They became friends, and I was introduced to Betty. She seemed very lonely, so I gave her my number. She would come to my apartment at least once a week when I lived in Brooklyn. At first, she never mentioned anything about Willowbrook, but as time went on, Betty became more comfortable with me. She started to tell me about the horrors that she’d endured in that “school” that was no school at all, but a dumping ground for the unwanted, the insane, and the disabled. She also talked to me about her eventual release, which left her homeless for some time before her aunt had agreed to take her in. 

Fifty years have passed since the horrors of Willowbrook were exposed. In 1972, investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera and print reporter Jane Curtin had received a tip about the atrocities taking place at Willowbrook State School. The reporters used a stolen key to get into the institution, surprising the staff by appearing, unannounced, with cameras ready to expose the horrors of Willowbrook. A doctor who worked at the institution gave Rivera the stolen key. The doctor knew of the physical and sexual abuse of the patients by the staff, the overcrowding, and the unsanitary, dehumanizing conditions. The investigation, called “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace”, was viewed by millions, and to this day, I cannot watch more than 5 minutes of the documentary because of the horrific conditions and abuses through which the patients lived.

Betty looked excited as she opened the door for me before I could even knock. I arrived as her attendant was leaving for the day. She’d helped Betty set coffee and cake on the kitchen table, as well as some of the “birthday cake” cookies that we both loved. The attendant told me how nice it was that I was spending time with Betty as she waved goodbye to us. Betty is in her late 60s, but looks much older than her years. I suppose that the hard life that she endured has taken its toll on her. 

We sat in the sunny kitchen and talked. Betty was concerned about how I was doing, having heard from her aunt (before she passed away) about some of my struggles with dissociative identity disorder (DID). 

“My aunt told me that you have a problem with ghosts in your head,” she said. “Are they gonna put you in a hospital?”. Betty has the endearing quality of having no filter. 

I laughed. “No, I don’t have ghosts in my head,” I said.“Just other people. It’s hard to explain, but I’m fine.” Betty looked sad and replied, “I think I saw people like you when I was in Willowbrook. They were always getting punished because they said they were different people.” 

I asked Betty if she’d allow me to write about her time at Willowbrook. Betty nodded. “People forget what happened to us there,” she said.

Betty was born in the early 1950s to a 16-year-old mother and a 17-year-old father in Brooklyn. Her parents had gotten married when her mother became pregnant, which was expected at the time. A year and half after Betty was born, it was clear that she was not hitting milestones at the same pace as other babies her age. She was having issues with her motor skills and was not learning to speak. Betty’s mother abandoned her, and her father didn’t want the responsibility of a child, so Betty was passed around to different family members who would keep her for a while, but would eventually pass her on to others due to her limitations and needs. 

Betty was three years old when her paternal grandfather decided to place her in Willowbrook. He and Betty’s grandmother took her to the “school,” which was on Staten Island, and that was the last time that Betty ever saw them. No one ever came to visit her. Betty spent her childhood and adolescence locked up in a place that Robert Kennedy called a “snake pit.” 

Betty was subjected to beatings and sexual abuse by staff, as well as by some of the older patients. She had almost no medical attention there, unless she was bleeding from an injury. If the staff thought a child was difficult, the child was either put in a straitjacket all the time, or placed in isolation in small cells called “the pit.” Betty was placed in isolation a few times for being a “trouble maker,” as the nurses called her. She was left in a cell 24 hours a day, with only a cloth diaper and nothing else—not even a blanket, and very little food or water. “Everyone was afraid of the pit,” Betty said. 

As Betty aged, she was moved to another building where there were girls and women over the age of 14. The beatings, sexual abuse, and punishments continued in the new building. Betty, like many of the girls and women, was sterilized against her will. She said that they were told that “retards can’t have babies.” The ward was overcrowded, and the residents were routinely drugged every morning, night, and throughout the day. Laundry was never done, so many residents were either naked or wore cloth diapers that were infrequently changed. Their days were spent in a large common room that smelled like death. Bathrooms were only allowed once in the morning when they woke up and once before bed. The walls of the common room, and everywhere, were covered in feces, urine and blood from the residents. 

The nurses had no patience for any resident, and they often beat them. The residents were always bruised, and some had cigarette burns. When it was meal time, they received some kind of mushy substance that was often drugged with heavy tranquilizers. There were no activities scheduled for any of the residents, so they stayed in the dayroom til it was time for them to go to bed. None of the blankets or sheets were washed or changed. Some residents were chained to their beds or were left in carts if they were unable to move on their own. The sleeping area was overcrowded and filthy. A bath literally meant being hosed down with cold water, and it was only once or twice a month. The toilets overflowed because the plumbing was never fixed. The unsanitary conditions made many residents very sick and some died. There was once an incident where a boy was scalded in the shower as punishment by a staff member. 

Betty teared up as she spoke about Willowbrook, and I asked her if she wanted to stop. She didn’t, she kept saying the same thing over and over again: “People forget what happened to us there.” 

She said that it was normal for people to just disappear or die. Nobody looked into their deaths because they either had families that never asked about or visited them, or the family had specifically wanted no contact from Willowbrook, not even if their family member died. Some patients had all of their teeth pulled if they bit someone once, and many were lobotomized. To say that patients were dehumanized would be an understatement. Willowbrook was hell itself. 

Willbrook was state funded. Parents who wanted better treatment for their children had to give signed permission for their children to be experimented on for new vaccines and hepatitis.

Betty said, “Yeah, some kids were in the experimental building. They got better food and had school for a couple of hours a day. Do you know what happened to them?” 

I shook my head as Betty continued, “Oh, they were given hepatitis, and then they gave them vaccines.” 

“They put poop in their chocky milk—hepatitis poop from the kids that had it!” Betty said. I shook my head in disbelief. Betty continued, “They gave the poop to kids to see if it will work like a vaccine shot.” 

I’d heard about the experiments, but didn’t know the extent of them. I changed the subject and asked her to tell me about leaving Willowbrook. Betty said that she was placed in a group home after Willowbrook. She was almost 20 years old when she left, having lived most of her life in Willowbrook. In many ways, it was the only home that she had known. Unfortunately, the group home was only slightly better than Willowbrook: Residents got better food and clothes, but the beatings and sexual abuse still went on. 

Betty eventually ran away from the group home, and no one looked for her. She ended up on the streets of New York, homeless, vulnerable, alone, having trouble understanding what was going on around her. She told me she slept in doorways and sidewalks and begged for change so she could eat. I’ve had my own experience with homelessness, and I couldn’t imagine how hard it was on Betty. She was raped several times while on the street, by men who took advantage of her obvious disabilities. She was also pimped out by a man that she thought was her boyfriend. 

Finally, a social worker befriended Betty after she was arrested for prostitution, and gave her some help. The social worker managed to track down some of Betty’s family, and Betty was taken in by her maternal aunt, with whom she lived until her aunt’s death six months earlier. Betty said her aunt was mean and treated her badly when she forgot things, dropped something, or if the house wasn’t cleaned to her specifications. Her aunt took her in because she thought she was getting a free maid, and for the disability money that Betty got every month. 

“It was better than the street and Willowbrook!” Betty said. 

Willowbrook first opened in 1947, and finally closed its doors in 1987, fifteen years after a stolen key allowed millions to see the cruelties that were taking place. It’s a little hard to believe that it took so long for this horrible place to finally be shut down. Willowbrook now stands abandoned, filled with trash and rats. Some of the residents either ran away or were not placed in group homes. They became homeless on the streets of New York, and many actually came back to inhabit the abandoned buildings that were their homes for most of their lives. 

There are about 2,300 Willowbrook survivors alive today. Even though it’s been 35 years since Willowbrook had closed its doors permanently, many former Willowbrook residents have reportedly continued to suffer abuse in their new facilities. In 2019, there were 97 reports of physical abuse, 34 allegations of psychological abuse, and many reports of sexual abuse of former Willowbrook residents. 

Geraldo Rivera’s report in early 1972 was called “The Last Great Disgrace,” but that title was wrong. Willowbrook State School wasn’t the last disgrace because the disgrace is going on today, 50 years later. It is every person’s right to be safe from harm, yet mental health facilities in operation today are still understaffed, and there’s a lack of training for employees. Today, Willowbrook State School is just several abandoned and decaying buildings on Staten Island. Some say it’s haunted by the tortured spirits of its former residents, and a child killer known as “Cropsey,” but in fact Willowbrook’s many horrors live on in the smaller modern facilities that are supposed to protect the vulnerable and the disabled. 

(Johanna Elattar is a writer from New York. Please subscribe to her YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbl8YHfxexHQ5TGJbPw_B4Q)