Administrative History

Willowbrook State School was constructed in the late 1930s as a model school for the mentally retarded, and to help relieve overcrowding at an institution in Rockland County. It was ceded to the control of the Veterans Administration in 1942, serving as a hospital for the wounded during the war years. By 1952, residents had moved in and the institution became responsible for housing some of New York's most severely mentally disabled children. Willowbrook's population differed considerably from that of other state schools. It was the only school to receive children under age 5 (it had up to 90 residents during the 1950s). Willowbrook received persons from New York City or by transfer from other state schools. Most of the transfers were severely retarded, handicapped, and/or undisciplined cases. Furthermore, Willowbrook had the highest percentage of black and Hispanic residents of any state school. Originally named the Willowbrook Home for the Retarded, the facility was known as the Willowbrook State School from 1947 to 1975.

By the 1970s, the institution had become notorious for its bad living conditions and treatment of clients. Prompted by widespread public outrage and a grass-roots movement by clients' relatives, in 1972 the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against the state and then governor Nelson Rockefeller. In 1975, a federal judge issued a consent decree for the deinstitutionalization of most of Willowbrook's residents; the school was required to reduce its population from 5,300 to 250. Residents who had family in the immediate New York City area were placed in the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Services Office, and all others were transferred to state facilities and community homes that could accommodate them. The Willowbrook State School, which had been renamed the Staten Island Developmental Center, closed in 1988.

A total of 278 Willowbrook patients were transferred to the Sunmount Developmental Disabilities Services Office in Tupper Lake, NY.