NY1 Exclusive: Willowbrook Activist Looks Back, 35 Years Later

A Harlem mother who was at the forefront of a 1970s grassroots movement that dramatically changed the lives of developmentally disabled New Yorkers who were institutionalized is still going strong in both her life and life's mission. NY1's Cheryl Wills filed the following report.

Shortly after Willie Mae Goodman's daughter, Margaret, was born in the mid 1950s, doctors insisted that her mentally disabled baby wouldn't live to be a toddler.

They told her that the best thing to do was to put her baby girl in Staten Island's Willowbrook State School and basically forget about her.

"They thought they were just keeping them alive -- no life," Goodman said.

Offended, Goodman rolled up her sleeves and started a grassroots movement to fight for all children who were institutionalized in the notoriously overcrowded and understaffed facility.

Margaret is now 54 years old. Goodman, almost 80, is still on the frontlines of that battle.

"When you fight, you never stop fighting," Goodman said.

Willie Mae Goodman may not be a household name, but just about everyone in the mental health community knows of her. She fought to get her daughter removed from the state school just before all hell broke loose.

Journalist Geraldo Rivera famously sneaked a camera crew into Willowbrook in 1972, and his reports sent shockwaves across the world. Images of thousands of naked disabled people unsupervised and sitting in their own waste caused a national outcry. And when the parents of the 5,000 people living at Willowbrook filed suit in federal court, Willie Mae Goodman was one of the more vocal plaintiffs.

"When I was younger, I wasn't nice at all. I fought everybody I could fight. I cursed out everybody I could curse out," Goodman said.

The lead attorney in the Willowbrook case, Murray Schneps, who also had a daughter at Willowbrook, heard Ms. Goodman loud and clear. He says she was -- and still is -- a force to be reckoned with.

"She understood that in order for her to be successful in what she was doing, she had to get political power," Schneps said.

The parents won the federal suit and in 1975 the Willowbrook Consent Decree was implemented. The judgment mandated the state spend millions to relocate disabled individuals into neighborhood based half-way houses and group homes. It also set a standard of care.

Currently, Margaret lives in a cozy group home in Harlem close to her mom.

Mental health advocates say Ms. Goodman's battles are legendary.

"Ms. Goodman is a fighter for all people with disabilities," said Joyce White of the New York Developmental Disibilities Service Office.

"Parents like Ms. Goodman didn't stop because people didn't listen and sometimes people really had to be taken to task," said LifeSpire Executive Director Tom McAlvanah.

Willie Mae Goodman's activism won her the praise of local politicians like Percy Sutton and David Dinkins, but she has never sought the limelight. She says, for her, it's all about protecting civil rights for the disabled.

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