Please join us for “Inside the Cages”: Jane Kurtin and the Staten Island Advance Break the Willowbrook Story on Wednesday, May 18 at 6:00pm via Zoom.
Please pre-register for this event.
From the late 1940s through the 1970s, the Willowbrook State School operated as the world’s largest institution for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Conceived as an ideal center for treatment, it rapidly descended into a “snakepit” through underfunding, overcrowding, and understaffing. Willowbrook residents suffered neglect and abuse, and in some cases, were subjected to unethical medical research. Parents of children in the School, aided by concerned doctors and staff, acted to reform and then ultimately to close Willowbrook. They were supported in these efforts by journalists who made the wider world aware of what they had witnessed with their own eyes.
Many know of the powerful exposé, broadcast 50 years ago by ABC television journalist Geraldo Rivera. Rivera’s scathing report, Willowbrook, The Last Disgrace, which we featured in a Year of Willowbrook event in February*, brought the story of Willowbrook to a national audience. But before this, the story had been “broken” — brought into the light — by a local journalist, Jane Kurtin. Kurtin’s stories in the Staten Island Advance went beyond the isolated articles about Willowbrook that had appeared in other newspapers, like The New York Times. Her reporting on Willowbrook viwed it from a multitude of angles, and presented a sustained focus over several years of reporting on the struggles of the institution, on its underfunding, on the community’s response, and — most powerfully — on families’ agony and activism in the face of the institution’s harming of their loved ones. It is not an exaggeration to say that without Kurtin’s reporting, and without the local Staten Island Advance to publish it, the Willowbrook story might never have been told.
This event will feature a discussion among reporter Jane Kurtin, Staten Island Advance Executive Editor Brian Laline, and Willowbrook Legacy Committee member Diane Buglioli. It will examine the story behind the stories, how the Advance came to assign Kurtin to cover Willowbrook, and what the experience of reporting meant for those involved. We will also have the opportunity to view selected photographs captured by the late photojournalist Eric Aerts, who accompanied Kurtin on her investigations inside Willowbrook (a retrospective gallery show of Aerts’s powerful work is planned for the fall). The event will be introduced by Willowbrook Legacy Committee Co-Chair Nora Santiago, and audience discussion will follow, facilitated by Willowbrook Legacy Committee Co-Chair, Dr. Catherine Lavender.
*A recording of The Year of Willowbrook event about the exposé can be viewed on the Willowbrook Project’s YouTube channel.
By The Year of Willowbrook Committee