Victoria’s Diary: Horrors from my past

At the recent taping of "Deep Dive," on set with Geraldo, Vanessa Dacenzo, whose mom was at Willowbrook, and Al Primo, the executive producer and creator of Eyewitness News.

It all came back to me as I watched Geraldo Rivera’s Fox Nation series on his 50-year career in broadcasting, with the first segment being his life changing award-winning coverage of the Disgrace at Willowbrook. The segment serves as a reminder that the horrors of our past must never be repeated. 

It was in 1970 that I brought my daughter Lara to Willowbrook, a state-run facility on Staten Island that housed an Infant Rehabilitation Center. Her brain damage at birth left her as a helpless 3-month old, developmentally. But here was a place, I was told, where she would receive physical and occupational therapy. So, I was hopeful!

But within a year of her being there, Governor Rockefeller slashed the budget for the facility whose staff was already too small to deal with the people there who were all profoundly disabled. Within days of the cuts of direct care staff employees, people were dying from lack of care.

There were too few people to feed those who couldn’t feed themselves; too few people to dress the people who couldn’t dress themselves; too few staff to stop someone from choking on a plastic glove left on the floor; too few hands to help!

Members of Life’s WORC, the group I founded, became marchers and picketers. But no one listened until a cub reporter, who knew a doctor who worked at Willowbrook, snuck into the facility to reveal the horrors behind the doors of the visiting rooms. 

Geraldo Rivera and his camera crew’s passionate, painful coverage revealed the shocking scenes of naked, moaning, feces-covered people. It shocked all of us, and through his reporting, shocked the nation.

This Eric Aerts photo taken at Willowbrook appeared in Life Magazine.

Geraldo’s new show, “Dive Deep,” where I appeared talking about Willowbrook, was a powerful reminder of that horrible scandal of locking people away because they were disabled.

His coverage enabled my husband Murray — an attorney — to convince the parents to file a federal class action lawsuit that’s forever changed how children with disabilities are served now in the community in small group homes. I sobbed when I saw the pictures of me with Lara in my arms, raising my voice against the budget cuts in 1971.

Lara needed total care and was developmentally a three-month-old.

Willowbrook is now the College of Staten Island, and group homes have replaced the institution.

But vigilance is now needed more than ever. The battle to provide the much-needed services for people with disabilities is still ongoing, and as Geraldo said on his “Deep Dive” historic coverage of the Willowbrook debacle: “Each person in our nation has the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” no matter their needs.

We must keep alert, even today, that state budget cuts don’t create small Willowbrooks in the community. Funding cuts can kill the progress we have made making people with disabilities live in dignity.

Take a few minutes and watch the moving coverage of Geraldo’s 50-year journey beginning with Willowbrook. Don’t miss the riveting new show, streaming now at www.foxnews.com/media/geraldo-willowbrook-branded-my-soul-fox-nation.

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