"It was like living in hell." So recalls Bernard of his 18 years at Willowbrook, a state institution for the developmentally disabled on New York's Staten Island.
Mistakenly diagnosed, Bernard has cerebral palsy with no mental impairment and thus is one of the only former residents who can articulate the horror of the place, which was exposed in 1977 when Geraldo Rivera sneaked in and filmed the conditions. Rivera found the disabled inmates naked, beaten and eating off the floor. The institution was subsequently shut down.
But where did the residents go? "Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook" (at 10 tonight on KCET) tracks down a few of them and their families, and sensitively revisits the agonizing question of what to do with society's most vulnerable.
Since Willowbrook, the trend has gone from institutionalization to community-based care.
Pain is etched on the careworn faces of family members as they tell of their guilt for having unknowingly let their children or siblings suffer at Willowbrook.
There is also weariness, as today much of the burden of the disabled's care is placed on families.
The documentary focuses most on siblings. Their feelings run the gamut from affection to resentment. One man speaks of the 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year attention his brother requires, and how it has in part prevented him from starting his own family.
Perhaps one of the most important messages of the film is that these families need help. A gray area must be found between the extremes of institutionalization and home care -- such as more group homes, which now are in short supply.