5 Things Social Workers NEED to Know about Willowbrook – Julie S.

  1. The Willowbrook institution was first built in the 1930’s in central Staten Island, New York City and housed children with mental disabilities of varying spectrums. It was state funded and considered a school program for children who are unable to live at home or attend public school (DeBello, 2008, website).

“The World Health Organization considers a disability to be any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being” (Dinitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 217)

2. The institution was meant to hold just 4,000 residents, however, by 1965 it was filled with over 6,000. This made for significant overcrowding and significantly challenged the ability for workers and nurses to provide adequate attention to each child (Rivera, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, video).


“The presence of DD [developmental disabilities] is about 5 percent of the total U.S. population; the prevalence of mental retardations is about 3percent (though some believe this estimate is too high) (Dinitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 220).

3. In 1972, a milestone for services for the developmentally and mentally disabled occurred in response to Geraldo Rivera’s expose of the horrors behind the walls of Willowbrook (Documentary). As a result of its work, Willowbrook was closed and the deinstitutionalization took place ultimately leading people with developmental and mental disabilities to seek assistance from community residences and agencies (DeBello, 2008, website).

“The Rehabilitation, Comprehensive Services, and Developmental Disabilities Amendments of 1978 instituted priority services (e.g., case management, child development, alternative community living, and non-vocational social development services) that provided many jobs for social workers” in the field of services for developmental disorders (DiNitto & Mcneece, 2008, p. 222).


4. At this time in history, few options existed for families with disabled children and restricted finances. In reflecting on the documentary by Geraldo Rivera, the class can conclude that Social Workers could have served as advocates at the macro level and meet patients at the micro level to change the way in which human children were treated including exposing them to traumatic overcrowding, disease, unsanitary conditions, and extreme restrictions in learning (Rivera, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, video). As a result of the work of Rivera, many historical changes have taken place which allow for social workers to advocate and work significantly more on behalf of people with disabilities. Still many more challenges exist moving forward and Social Workers can provide guidance through these circumstances.


Future Challenges: “The disability field is a growing area of practice for social workers and is full of challenges. These challenges include considering disability as an aspect of human diversity and within the context of gender, race, and ethnicity; better preparing socila workers for pracitce in the disability field; working to unify the field; annd promoting greater includsion of people with disabilites, especially in employment” (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 233).


5. Social Workers can help advocate for the PATIENT’S desires and ensure that they receive the care needed to meet their circumstances, without also limiting them or considering them in ways that make them any less human. People with disabilities are equally deserving of good care.


“Social work can contribute decades of experience with the ecology of society and multiple systems. This disability movement can help social work enhance approaches to clients, better empower oppressed and devalued groups, and understand the needs of people with disabilities” (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 221).



DeBello, Vanessa Leigh. “History of Willowbrook State School.” Web blog post. Willowbrook State School. Blogspot, 2008. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <http://willowbrookstateschool.blogspot.com/p/history.html&gt;.

DiNitto, D., & McNeece, Carl Aaron. (2008). Social work : Issues and opportunities in a challenging profession (3rd ed.). Chicago, Ill.: Lyceum Books.

Geraldo Rivera, Willowbrook: Letchworth VilliageThe Last Great Disgrace Documentary, 1972

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