In 1962, in an effort to relieve overcrowding at Willowbrook, the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene began quietly transferring about 200 children and infants with severe disabilities from Willowbrook to the former Gouverneur Hospital in Manhattan’s lower East Side. This building had been vacated by the City of New York the year before as an “outmoded and inadequate” structure.
The vast majority of the children transferred to Gouverneur were non-verbal and non-ambulatory persons with profound needs for care. The Department of Mental Hygiene had determined that these children had a short life expectancy, due to the severity of their disabilities. The expectation that the placement would be short-term freed officials to use the “obsolete and dilapidated” building despite its being condemned.
In telling this story, the Willowbrook Legacy Project has worked closely with the families associated with Gouverneur, especially Jose J. Rivera, brother of a former Gouverneur resident and Gouverneur Parent Association member, as well as Willie Mae Goodman, whose suit against New York State resulted in the 1971 injunction.
The story of the Gouverneur transfers is a central part of the Willowbrook story. It illustrates the paucity of care available outside of Willowbrook, as well as the limits on the rights of its residents and their parents. Before the 1972 class action lawsuit that eventually yielded the Consent Judgement that closed Willowbrook, the parents of children sent to Gouverneur turned to the courts to intervene on their behalf. In 1971, they successfully won an injunction that ordered New York State to establish care for their children in a setting that respected their essential human rights.
The Gouverneur story is about the survival of human beings who had been abandoned by the care system and placed in a building vacated by the City as uninhabitable. The Gouverneur story is about the apathy by State officials who failed to provide the Gouverneur residents with the rehabilitative services they required. The Gouverneur story is about the deep advocacy by families to ensure the survival of their loved ones. The Gouverneur story is about partnerships, among families, direct care staff, journalists, and the community that proved a formidable alliance in preventing the State, via a court injunction, from transferring the Gouverneur residents back to Willowbrook in 1971. This was but a prelude to the Willowbrook class-action law suit filed in 1972 and the subsequent deinstitutionalization of thousands across New York State and tens of thousands across the country.
This event will feature Willie Mae Goodman and Jose Rivera, in conversation with Willowbrook Legacy Project Co-chair Dr. Catherine Lavender, Professor of History, the College of Staten Island/CUNY, with commentary from Professor Jorge Matos Valldejuli of Hostos Community College/CUNY.
By The Year of Willowbrook