STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Advocates for the developmentally disabled gathered at the site of the former Willowbrook State School on Thursday to raise concerns about funding cuts.
Rally attendees, including parents and some former employees of the institution, raised concerns about a possible “return to Willowbrook” if New York is either unable or unwilling to adequately fund programs across the state.
Laura Kennedy, a parent advocate who has a developmentally disabled daughter, addressed the crowd gathered for the 33rd anniversary of Willowbrook’s official closure by former Gov. Mario Cuomo and called on his son to adequately fund the needed services.
“We are here today as advocates to express our fears and frustrations to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration for their continuing neglect of people with developmental disabilities,” she said. “We gather here to protest the draconian budget cuts he has implemented and continue to implement.”
At least 100 attendees lined up more-than 50 cars outside the former school’s grounds, which were relinquished in 1989 for the new College of Staten Island. Similar rallies across the state took place Thursday to call for adequate funding.
APPEAL TO CUOMO
The group pointed to a Sept. 8 letter from members of the New York Legislature and advocates that called on the governor to use funds allocated to the state as part of the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), which was created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
According to their letter, the state has yet to use $4 billion of the $5.1 billion allotted to New York, and the group suggested using those funds to pay money owed to nonprofit organizations providing services to those in need including the developmentally disabled.
However, the CARES Act stipulates funds from the CRF be used only for expenses “incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to (COVID-19).”
Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for New York’s Division of the Budget, said the state has a $14.5 billion revenue shortfall this year, and that it would spend money from the CRF on COVID-related costs like personal protective equipment, testing, and contact tracing.
“The Federal government has failed to provide New York and other states impacted by COVID-19 with assistance to offset any of the resulting revenue loss,” he said. “(The legislature’s) time would be better spent joining the fight for Federal aid.”
Lawmakers gave Cuomo power to change the budget in April — as a result the state has held back 20% of local funding. The governor has threatened to make those cuts permanent if the federal government doesn’t act.
Agencies, and non-profits across the state are facing budget shortfalls due to the cuts. On Wednesday, the state’s largest teacher’s union — New York State United Teachers — filed a lawsuit against the governor to restore $5.2 billion in school aid.
No matter where the funding comes from or which level of government needs to act, advocates are concerned the essential non-profit organizations, which replaced many state-run institutions like Willowbrook, will not receive the funding they need.
During its time in operation, the Willowbrook State School rose to infamy for its conditions and treatment of the people it was meant to be serving. A notable scandal involved experiments that intentionally infected intellectually disabled children with hepatitis.
Numerous former employees attended Thursday’s rally, including Geraldine Cassone and Diane Buglioli, said the things they saw at the school still stay with them. Both have become advocates for the developmentally disabled.
“It was horrific,” Cassone, who worked on transitioning students out of the school, said. “The smell in the buildings was son unbelievable — I still carry with it me til this day.”
Ultimately, the facility closed after former Advance reporter Jane Kurtin and television reporter Geraldo Rivera exposed conditions at the school, and families filed a lawsuit against Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1972.
Gov. Hugh Cary signed the “Willowbrook Consent Decree,” which began the closure process. Arthur Webb, a former state commissioner who served in Mario Cuomo’s administration, lent his support to the rally’s cause.
“As the commissioner who closed Willowbrook for all the right reasons, I am in total support of your advocacy to remind the governor not to ever return to Willowbrook or anything close to it,” Webb wrote in a letter to the Kennedy and Buglioli.