Willowbrook: How the government abused children with special needs

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WILLOWBROOK is a short film based on the true events surrounding the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York. The film addresses the awful conditions in which people with developmental disabilities were warehoused and the controversial research experiments that took place under Dr Saul Krugman in the 1960s.

The Story

In the autumn of 1962, a young pediatrician begins his residency at a school for people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, only to discover that the institution’s medical personnel are conducting US Army funded experiments on the patients.

Based on true events, Willowbrook is the story of sons and daughters abandoned by their parents in dilapidated institutions and the struggle of a young man against the researchers who use them for experimentation and scientific advancement.

The Project

Using historical research, as well the desire to tell an interesting, emotionally challenging narrative, the film explores themes of conscience and ethics in addition to personal drive, ego and ambition within the world of scientific discovery.

Willowbrook is being made by student filmmakers at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts having been awarded the 2010 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Production Grant.

Questions & Answers with Director Ross Cohen

Why did you choose to do a movie about Willowbrook?
I read an article about the Tuskegee study and it mentioned other institutions that performed unethical testing. Willowbrook was one of the institutions mentioned. What made Willowbrook different was that it involved children with developmental disabilities. When researching the story I was shocked to find that most people had no idea about the unethical medical experiments being conducted on children in the 1960s.

Do you have relatives or family that have special needs?
I do not, but in making this film I have made lots of friends who have a variety of different conditions and disabilities. I greatly appreciate their support for this film. They have responded in a variety of ways from sending emails and letter of support, sending newspaper clippings and even appearing in the film to give the authenticity a story like this needed.

Did you know anyone who was sent to Willowbrook or a similar institution?
Since we started prepping the film we have heard mainly from the sons and daughters of people whose parents spent years at Willowbrook. Their advice and support has been very encouraging. I met a woman who still works for the Department of Mental Hygiene on the old Willowbrook grounds (now College of Staten Island). She was the secretary for the Director of Willowbrook during the 1960s.  She also had no idea of the research and experimentation that was going on with some of the kids. It was done in an isolated building so very few people (even those working on the grounds) knew about it.

What was one of the worst cases of mistreatment at Willowbrook?
Our film deals with the deliberate injection of Hepatitis which during 1964. From 1958-1964  feces was taken from children who had Hepatitis, put it in milkshakes and fed it to newly admitted children for experimentation purposes.

What was the biggest lesson that you learned from making this film?
The biggest lesson I learned is how inspiring it is when you are making a film and hundreds of people express their support, donate their time and money to help you. They believe in the message of the film. Filmmaking can often be a lonely experience as it all rests on your shoulders. From this film I learned the power of  support and encouragement from the people around you, whether its on set or online!

When you started doing research about Willowbrook what was the one thing that surprised you the most?
What surprised me the most (apart from the shock of the treatment of people with developmental disabilities) was that it took until 1987 to close the institution. You imagine this mistreatment to be something of the past but it was only closed less than 25 years ago.

When will the film be released to the public?The film will be released on DVD in January. We are trying to raise the final funds for a sound mix and DVD production so we launched a campaign on Kickstarter to help raise the last few dollars needed. People that donate to the film will receive a copy as well as some other cool bonus rewards!

If people wanted to learn more about Willowbrook where should they look?

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  • http://rileys-smile.blogspot.com/ Stacie

    It will take everything I have to watch this film… but it is important.  I shared the link on my site.  Thank you for sharing.

  • http://www.jennifergreeningbooks.com Jennifer Greening

    These are the conditions that lead parents to create advocacy organizations such as The Arc and TASH.  I am very grateful for the work of the parents that created the organizations because now my daughter has a greater chance at equal opportunities to be included in life.  Sadly I think many people still believe that people with disabilities belong “somewhere else” and many people with disabilities are not included in our daily lives.  One of the biggest institutions that still routinely separates children based on disabilities is our public schools.  I hope we can look back someday soon and be happy with the inclusive lives we have created for all our children.

  • http://willowbrook Patti Busch

     I believe the doctors should be treated the same way they did the children have them drink milkshake poop. Give them hepatitis and then let the children run test on the doctors and let me enjoy that movie.

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