ACLU History: Mental Institutions
Ennis' most sensational case while at the NYCLU began with a class-action lawsuit filed in 1972 on behalf of the 5,400 residents of the Willowbrook State School for mentally disabled children in Staten Island. At the time Willowbrook was the biggest state run institution of its kind in the United States. Filthy conditions and questionable medical practices and experiments prompted Senator Robert Kennedy to call it a 'snake pit.' Public outrage grew after broadcast journalist Geraldo Rivera exposed the abhorrent conditions in a video showing developmentally disabled children lying naked on the floor, many of them in their own feces.
The three-year-long legal battle against Willowbrook culminated in a 1975 consent decree mandating significant reforms; but it took years of tenacious litigation and advocacy to force officials to improve conditions and supply the funds necessary for reform. Historians David and Sheila Rothman subsequently published a detailed account of this process in their widely-read The Willowbrook Wars. In 1983, the state of New York announced plans to close Willowbrook, and the last children left the grounds in 1987. The nationwide publicity generated by the Willowbrook case helped contribute to passage of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980.
The ACLU's most important Supreme Court case involving the rights of people with mental illness was filed on behalf of Kenneth Donaldson, who had been involuntarily confined in a Florida State Hospital for 15 years. He was not dangerous and had received no medical treatment. In a landmark decision for mental health law in 1975, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that states cannot confine a non-dangerous individual who can survive on his own, or with help from family and friends.