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Willowbrook finally shuts down

By BERNARD C. CULLEN

NEW YORK -- The Willowbrook State School closed its doors forever Thursday -- more than 15 years after an expose on squalid conditions there made it a national disgrace in the treatment of the retarded.

State officials said the final 30 mentally handicapped residents of the Staten Island istitution, once called 'a snake pit' by Robert Kennedy, were transferred to other facilities Tuesday.

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Gov. Mario Cuomo officially declared the facility closed at a ceremony Thursday.

And now, officials said, the 380-acre site, also known as the Staten Island Developmental Center, will be rededicated for use as a college campus.

'Never again will there be more than 5,000 suffering people being neglected under such conditions,' said former Gov. Hugh Carey, who officiated with Cuomo at the ceremony. 'Those days are gone in New York state.'

Cuomo, who ordered the institution shut in 1984, lamented over the poor conditions under which he said tens of thousands of the mentally handicapped were mistreated for more than two decades.

'These people were stripped of their dignity, degraded and denied even a minimal level of participation in this community,' he said.

The governor said the institution's residents were mistreated 'not because they were guilty of anything,' but merely because they were mentally handicapped and vulnerable.

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Squalid conditions at Willowbrook were first made public in the early 1970s in a series of television reports done by journalist Geraldo Rivera.

Rivera told several hundred state and local officials and health care professionals attending the ceremony that when he sneaked a television camera into the facility he found patients lying on hallway floors, many of them 'smeared in their own filth.'

Rivera said nothing was being done to help the patients, and he said they had no hope of rehabilitation.

'There has been so much sadness in these buildings, so much wasted potential and sorrow,' Rivera said.

Families of 5,200 patients at the facility originally moved to have Willowbrook closed in a federal lawsuit filed in March 1972.

Louis Ganim, a spokesman for the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, said the state reached a preliminary settlement in 1975 under which U.S. District Judge John Bartels directed the facility's population be cut to 250.

Under the agreement, Bartels appointed an administrator to oversee Willowbrook and ordered a series of steps be taken to improve conditions for residents, he said.

Despite the ruling, the population at the insitution was 1,000 when Cuomo made the decision to close Willowbrook in 1984, Ganim said.

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The population fell to 250 in 1986, nine years after the original agreement.

A final agreement to close Willowbrook was reached this year, Ganim said.

Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring to build a new combined campus for the College of Staten Island and Richmond College, he said.

Willowbrook was the first of the state's seven developmental centers to close. The remainder are to shut down by 1992.

Willowbrook was built in 1942 but was taken over by the federal government and used as a hospital for returning World War II veterans.

The facility opened as a state hospital April 1, 1951.

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