THE WILLOWBROOK WARS: A Decade of Struggle for Social Justice by David J. & Shells M. Rothman Rothman

THE WILLOWBROOK WARS: A Decade of Struggle for Social Justice

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Demanding, overambitious, but valuable: a detailed study of the court-ordered deinstitutionalization of a large state-school for the mentally retarded--with the Rothmans trying to follow both the legal/bureaucratic angles and issues (""the dynamics of reform through litigation"") and the actual fate of the deinstitutionalized inmates (a social-work approach). First, there's the complex 150-page history that led to the 1975 judicial decree regarding the Willowbrook School on Staten Island: the horrible conditions at the overcrowded school, as publicized by Geraldo Rivera in 1972; the class-action suit on behalf of the residents; several trials, turning on whether inmates have a ""right to treatment"" or perhaps a ""right to protection from harm""; and the arguments amongst anti-Willowbrook forces--about whether inmates need to be removed from a bad institution. . . or from any institution. The latter, extremist view won out--resulting in the 29-page consent decree, calling on the state to seek non-institutional placement for the inmates. (Even an empty, brand-new hospital complex was an unacceptable alternative.) So the Rothmans follow the remarkable work of the new Metropolitan Placement Unit: finding foster-parents for 300 retarded children; setting up 100 group homes, administered by private agencies in three different styles (""affectionate family,"" ""stimulating classroom,"" mini-institution); battling community hostility with some success. But, though 2600 of the 5400 Willowbrook residents entered decent community living-arrangements by 1982, Willowbrook remained a sorry place--and, partly as a result of convoluted politics, a follow-up court decree ""demonstrated a fundamental discomfort with judges as institutional reformers."" Sheila Rothman's case-history closeups of non-institutional homes for the retarded (many of whom also have severe physical handicaps), though fascinating, often lapse into social-work-textbook flatness; the dense bureaucratic wrangles aren't always worth the close attention; and the mixture of approaches, along with some sloppy editorializing, sometimes dilutes authority. Still: intensive, broadly informative treatment of a unique stretch of socio-legal history--with a worthy attempt to keep all approaches (including the purely human one) in balance.

Pub Date: Oct. 24th, 1984
Publisher: Harper & Row