The New York Civil Liberties Union today welcomed news that the Department of State’s Office of Fire Prevention and Control and the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation are investigating a deadly fire that killed four residents of a Hamilton County group home Saturday. Several of the residents of the home were plaintiffs in the Willowbrook case, the NYCLU’s 1972 landmark class action lawsuit brought on behalf of 6,000 people with developmental disabilities who resided at the notorious Willowbrook State School on Staten Island and who, as a result of that suit, were released from Willowbrook and placed in group homes statewide.

The court order in that class action lawsuit requires New York State to provide services for and protect all members of the Willowbrook Class. It is the attorney general’s obligation to ensure that the state is in compliance with the court’s order.

Of the nine group home residents in the Hamilton County home, five were Willowbrook Class members. Of those five, two are confirmed dead and one was flown by med flight helicopter to a local hospital. Two other residents of the home are also confirmed dead. The residents of the group home were people who could not evacuate themselves.

“The state fire investigation is important,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “But the attorney general must also begin a parallel investigation into the tragedy to assess whether the state was fulfilling its court-ordered obligation to provide services for and protect members of the Willowbrook Class in that group home and whether it is fulfilling its responsibilities in other group homes.”

In 1972, the NYCLU filed a historic civil rights lawsuit to challenge the inhumane institutional conditions suffered by the residents of the infamous Willowbrook State School. These rights include protection from harm, a safe, clean and appropriate physical environment, high quality community residential and treatment services in the least restrictive setting and high quality case management and advocacy services.

More than 35 years later, the NYCLU and other advocates still actively monitor New York State to ensure that it is complying with its obligations on behalf of the members of the Willowbrook Class. This monitoring will continue and will seek to ensure that an investigation unearths all of the factors that contributed to this terrible tragedy.

The NYCLU called specifically for investigation of:

  • Whether there was adequate staffing at the home;
  • Whether the home failed to have the full compliment of safeguards in place to ensure safety in the event of a fire; and
  • Whether recent cuts in funding have resulted in substandard facilities that contributed to the tragedy.

“We understand the staff at the home performed heroically. They deserve our heartfelt thanks and support,” said Beth Haroules, the NYCLU’s lead counsel on the Willowbrook case. “But questions remain. The attorney general must investigate whether staffing levels and the physical plant complied with the court order.”

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