Geraldo Rivera’s expose on conditions at the Willowbrook State School was utterly eye-opening. So often throughout the footage, I was struck by the hopelessness and the despair that was clear throughout the Willowbrook facility. These feelings were made evident through the lack of clothing, the extremely limited eating time, and the complete lack of activities or curriculum, among other things. Further, these aspects were only exaggerated by the sever understaffing. I could hardly believe it when I heard that the patient to attendant ratio was supposed to be around four to one, but was instead between 30 and 40 to one. William Bronston who worked as a physician at Willowbrook for many years aptly labeled Willowbrook as little more than a “human warehouse.”
What made these conditions seem even worse was the contrast between Willowbrook and the Californian centers. The children at the Californian centers were much happier, and this seemed to be a direct result of the different implementations of these centers. They had clean facilities, a personal health and academic plan for each individual, and they maintained family contact and connection as best they could. On a larger scale, this all was due to the fact that California invested more in their department of education than in large-scale institutions like Willowbrook. This choice definitely paid off for them.
Still the most notable difference between these two approaches was eloquently stated in the Rivera expose, “…the main difference between the approach of New York and that of California to the problem of caring for the mentally retarded is they treat the retarded as people, we treat them as something less.” I appreciated how this statement put so much emphasis on the humanity of patients. As I think about our discussions these past two weeks, so many of the atrocities boiled down to health professionals not recognizing the humanity of their patients. If we could only consistently get that right, so many of these ethical violations might never have occurred. It is now our responsibility to learn from these past failures and do our very best to prevent anything like them from ever happening again.