Advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities drove Thursday from Long Island to the Mario Cuomo Bridge in a caravan to rally against funding cuts for mental health service providers.
The mobile rally came on the 33rd anniversary of the state closing the Willowbrook State School, an infamous shuttered mental institution on Staten Island where residents were neglected and lived in unsanitary conditions — a scenario critics say the state is doomed to repeat thanks to the funding cuts.
“Don’t send us back to the days of Willowbrook,” participants wrote in the windows of their cars before they drove down the Long Island Expressway, through Staten Island to pass by the closed institution, and headed north to Tarrytown.
“The fear of returning to Willowbrook is not irrational,” said Michael Bolton and his wife, Randy, who both worked at Willowbrook and are now involved in the nonprofit NYC Family Advocacy Information Resource (FAIR), which organized the rally along with the Long Island Advocacy Network for Developmental Disabilities (LIANDD).
“It didn’t happen overnight but over years as budgets were cut, staffing was reduced, and the voices of the families involved weren’t heard,” they recalled. “The Willowbrook buildings may be empty, but the atrocities can’t be erased. As parents age and there is nowhere for their children to go, they lie awake frightened that the choices left for their children will be a mirror image of Willowbrook.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has enacted funding cuts across the board to cope with a drastic drop in tax revenue following stay-at-home orders meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, but had the side effect of causing an economic crisis. Advocates fear the cuts will result in a return of widespread substandard care for vulnerable residents of smaller group homes for people with special needs that became the norm after the Willowbrook scandal led to nationwide mental health reforms.
“Our family members deserve better,” said Terri Manzione of the Nassau Suffolk Services for Autism. “We will not let Willowbrook happen again.”
New York State Assemblywoman Melissa Miller (R-Atlantic Beach) addressed the crowd in Hicksville before they hit the road.
“Sadly, this is nothing new to us,” she said. “Year after year, we have to beg for funding for programs and services and residential opportunities. And now it’s morphed into begging just to not be cut.”
Noting the governor’s oft-repeated refrain that the public needs to be “New York Tough” amid the pandemic, Miller added, “New York doesn’t seem so strong to me when it’s failing our most vulnerable people.”