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September 20, 1985

The Willowbrook Wars

Author Affiliations

Washington, DC

JAMA. 1985;254(11):1518-1519. doi:10.1001/jama.1985.03360110114037

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Large public institutions, including city general hospitals as well as institutions for the mentally ill, the aged, and the mentally retarded, have frequently been the subject of investigative journalism. Willowbrook, on Staten Island, was such an institution, with over 5,000 beds for the retarded. In the early 1970s, a coalition of groups, including the New York Mental Health Law Project, brought suit against Willowbrook. After a lengthy court battle, the judgment ordered community placement of most of the residents.

Even before this project, both authors were committed to the concept of deinstitutionalization or normalization. Sheila Rothman had trained and worked in the Boston area. In her master's thesis she noted that patients refused admission to the hospital because of lack of beds were able to continue to live at home "not because they were any less handicapped than those in the institution." She believed that there might be programs that