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Archives & Special Collections

Guide to Willowbrook State School Archival Collections at Other Institutions


This guide helps researchers locate Willowbrook State School archival collections.

Willowbrook State School was built in the 1930’s in Staten Island, NY to care for individuals with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. It did not receive its first residents, however, until after World War II. A combination of rising placements, budget cuts, ignorance, arrogance and indifference, created notorious conditions at Willowbrook. By 1965, with over 6,000 residents in an institution planned for just 4,000, Senator Robert Kennedy was calling Willowbrook a “snake pit.” In November 1971, The Staten Island Advance published a series of articles detailing the horrible conditions at the school. Following these articles, in January 1972, Geraldo Rivera, the television reporter, began a series of programs that shook the conscience of New York State and the nation and inspired parents and others to take legal action. The end result was the signing of a consent judgement in federal court in 1975. Willowbrook finally closed its doors in 1987.

The Consent Judgement has been called “revolutionary” because of what it accomplished and for what it inspired. The closure of Willowbrook, the placement of individuals with developmental disabilities in community residences, the growth of voluntary agencies and the expansion of day programs and special education can all be linked to the Judgement. The Judgement finally recognized and enforced the rights of individuals with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. The Judgement is the model used throughout the United States and in many parts of the world.

Hal Kennedy, Esq.

Archival Collections

Bartels, Judge John Ries. Papers.
75 cubic feet

Archives & Special Collections. Brooklyn College Library/CUNY.

Judge Bartels was a Senior Judge for the Eastern District Courthouse at Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn. Appointed by President Eisenhower, he kept this post until his death in 1997. He is most widely known for presiding over the Willowbrook and John Gotti trials. The papers were given to Brooklyn College by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

The papers include two subject folders on the Willowbrook case and files of Bartels' decisions, correspondence, diaries and telephone messages.

A finding aid is available at Archives & Special Collections, Brooklyn College Library and at Archives & Special Collections, College of Staten Island Library.


Bronston, William. Papers. 1961-2008.
88.4 linear feet

Bancroft Library/UC Berkeley. Call number BANC MSS 2002/227 c

Finding Aid

Dr. William Bronston, MD worked as a staff physician at Willowbrook (from 1970-1972) and was dismissed after agitating for change. Later he was a star witness in a legal case brought by parents to improve conditions at the School. This collection includes the evidence he presented in court and other materials he gathered and includes photographs, legal documents and case histories as part of a body of material documenting his entire career.


New York State Assistant Counsel to the Governor Subject and Correspondence Files, 1975-1978.

1 cubic foot

New York State Archives. Call number: B2556

Finding Aid

This series consists of correspondence and subject files relating to mental health policy, clemency, the care of people with mental disabilities, the Willowbrook State School investigation, the reorganization of the Department of Mental Hygiene, the Rockland Psychiatric Center investigation, mental health and criminal justice legislation, and a state prison task force. Records include outgoing and some incoming correspondence, reports, draft memorandums, studies, notes and background materials.

New York State Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled Chairperson's Articles and Speeches
1 cubic foot

New York State Archives. Series number: 19356

Finding Aid

This series consists of copies of professional journal articles and speeches by chairman Clarence J. Sundram on a variety of topics relating to the status of care of the mentally disabled, the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, and the work of the commission.


New York State Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled Chairperson's Subject Files, 1978-1998.

5 cubic feet

New York State Archives. Call number: 19354

Finding Aid

This accretion consists of subject files of commission chairman Clarence Sundram. Some records (boxes 4 and 5) relate to specific psychiatric and/or developmental centers where incidents of staff misconduct; patient abuse, neglect, or death; and/or financial irregularities were investigated. These records are restricted in part.


New York State State Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled Executive Bureau Chairperson's Outgoing Correspondence

4 cubic feet

New York State Archives. Series number: 19355

Finding Aid

This series consists of copies of the outgoing correspondence of Commission Chairman Clarence Sundram. The files are tissue carbon copies through 1982, and photocopies after that date. An index log for 1978-1998, listing name of correspondent and subject of the letter/memo, is available.


New York State Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled Executive Bureau "Special Project" Files of the Assistant Counsel to the Governor, 1975-1978.

16 cubic feet

New York State Archives. Call number: 19357

Finding Aid

This series consists of the self-styled "special project" files of commission chairman Clarence J. Sundram dating from the period of his service as assistant counsel in the Governor's Office. The files include reports, draft memorandums, studies, correspondence, notes, and background materials. Subjects include the Willowbrook State Hospital investigation; Department of Mental Health reorganization; Rockland Psychiatric Center investigation; mental hygiene and criminal justice legislation; and a state prison task force.

New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Litigation Support Services Willowbrook Litigation Support Files, 1972-1986.

6 cubic feet

New York State Archives. Call number: 21414

Finding Aid
In the early 1970s, the publicized conditions at Willowbrook led to a class action suit alleging civil rights violations (New York State Association for Retarded Children, Inc. v. Rockefeller). Willowbrook clients were deinstitutionalized or transferred to other state facilities. These records document the litigation over conditions at the facility, agency response to the litigation and its aftermath, and oversight of class members during and after the litigation. Included are correspondence, memorandums, reports, minutes, and audit reports. Records are restricted.


Rothman, David J. Willowbrook Developmental Center case, research materials, ca. 1971-1986.
42 cubic feet

New York State Library. Manuscripts and Special Collections. Call number: SC18831

Detailed Description

David J. and Sheila M. Rothman wrote The Willowbrook Wars; these records are the Rothmans’ research files on the Willowbrook case. Included are publications relating to mental health care and photocopies of reports, memoranda, legal briefs, correspondence, and other records from official sources (such as: the State Office of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, the Willowbrook Review Panel, and New York City mental health agencies). Also available are an extensive number of community placement files that include information on individual cases, reports on other community placement programs, reports on the Willowbrook community placement program, legal papers on community placement, and duplicate copies of professional literature on community placement.

This collection is partially processed and no finding aid is available, however a partial index is available within the collections. Access to the collection is restricted.


Willowbrook Collection, 1972-1982.

7 linear feet

Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University.

Finding Aid

The Willowbrook Collection consists of notes, photographs, videos, and films relating to "Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace." There are also a few unrelated items, such as a copy of Rivera's biography, Exposing Myself


Willowbrook Review Panel Records, 1970-1985.
117 cubic feet

M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, State University of New York at Albany

Collection Number: APAP-0127

Finding Aid

The Willowbrook Review Panel was a Federal monitoring group established by the U.S. District Court in 1975 and dismissed from its duties in 1987. The Willowbrook Review Panel Records provide extensive documentation of the Panel's main function: monitoring implementation of the 1975 Willowbrook Consent Decree in New York State which set new standards for the care of the facility's residents.

Wolf, Benjamin H. (1909- ) Arbitration Papers, 1972-1982.
45 linear feet

Kheel Center, Cornell University. Collection number: 5305

Finding Aid

Wolf was an arbitrator, labor mediator and attorney. He represented the Civil Service Employees Association in State of New York Departments of Mental Hygiene, Agriculture and Markets, Health, and Transportation and New York State hospitals at Rockland and Willowbrook vs. Civil Service Employees Association (1972-1975) on issues of improper personal conduct, discipline, negligence, dismissal, fringe benefits, and insubordination.