Society for Good Will to Retarded Children v. Cuomo

Decision Date10 August 1983
Docket NumberNo. 78-Civ.-1847.,78-Civ.-1847.
Citation572 F. Supp. 1300
PartiesSOCIETY FOR GOOD WILL TO RETARDED CHILDREN, INC., et al., Plaintiffs, v. Mario M. CUOMO, as Governor of the State of New York, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York


Murray B. Schneps, Michael S. Lottman, New York City, for plaintiffs.

Robert Abrams, Atty. Gen. of the State of N.Y., New York City by Caren S. Brutten, William J. Caplow, Frederick K. Mehlman, Asst. Attys. Gen., New York City, Alan M. Adler, Deputy Counsel, State of N.Y., Albany, N.Y., for defendants.


WEINSTEIN, Chief Judge:

This litigation plumbs the despair and guilt of society and of the parents of profoundly retarded children. Mothers and fathers, after courageous struggles to care for their offspring at home, overwhelmed by lack of respite and assistance, felt compelled to turn over responsibility for them to the state. They acted reluctantly in order to save a modicum of sane living for their families and because they believed the state could do more for their deprived youngsters than they could.

Some twelve hundred clients are housed at the Suffolk Developmental Center. Their dismal lives are relieved by the love and devotion of many of the parents and members of the Center's staff. New York (aided by the federal government), while doing less than the Constitution and laws require, has made many millions of taxpayers' dollars available.

The substantial efforts on behalf of these disabled people remind us that ours is fundamentally a compassionate and caring community. Once such people would have been exposed on a mountainside to die or would have been hidden in shame. Now they are kept alive and in view. But the law, expressing the concern of the state and nation for each person, requires that more than existence be preserved. It insists that some degree of humanity and dignity be safeguarded. As indicated below, the state has done less than the Constitution mandates. Accordingly, the courts are compelled to order that it do more.


A class action was commenced on August 23, 1978 by the Society for Good Will to Retarded Children, Inc., the parents' organization at Suffolk Developmental Center (the Center), and 13 mentally retarded individuals on behalf of themselves and more than 1,500 other persons then in residence at, or on the rolls of, the Center. Plaintiffs seek, on various constitutional and statutory grounds, 1) the improvement of conditions at the Center, 2) the expansion of community resources and support services in Nassau and Suffolk counties for the mentally retarded and for their families and 3) transfer of most of the clients at the Center to small community residences.

Defendants, sued in their official capacity, are the Governor of the State of New York and the personnel of the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. Jurisdiction is not disputed. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343.

The Center was opened in 1965. It is a state-run residential institution for the mentally retarded on 465 acres in Melville, Long Island, New York. 1,209 individuals now reside there. Most of the buildings house severely handicapped individuals in wards that generally contain between 20 to 25 beds. Many of the clients are non-ambulatory and physically disabled. There are also eight or nine "cottages" with somewhat smaller wards for less severely retarded clients capable of walking and taking care of some of their own functions. The Center has a "medical-surgical" building (number 16) with one "acute" and three "chronic" wards, as well as two wards housing non-ambulatory clients and a pulmonary unit for 25 clients with upper respiratory problems (building 19). Four buildings (4, 9, 20 and 21) are used exclusively for program activities.

Administrative responsibility for the Center rests with defendant Fred McCormack who, as Director of the Long Island Developmental Disabilities Services Office, is also in charge of the state's community placement in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Mr. McCormack reports to defendant Elin Howe, Associate Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities for the Southeastern County Service Group, answerable (through Deputy Commissioner Samuel Kawola) to defendant Commissioner Zygmond Slezak, who reports ultimately to the defendant Governor. Extensive references to pages in the record and exhibits as well as appendices are in the typescript copy on file in the clerk's office.

Certified as a class action on May 15, 1980, the case was tried without a jury. Court proceedings included over 21 trial days during March, April, September and October, 1982 in addition to numerous conferences and motions. The Court has heard more than 50 witnesses and received over 300 exhibits. Some 4,000 pages of transcripts were recorded.

On February 24, 1983, following the last of its three visits to the Center, the first in November 1978, and the second and third in February of this year, the Court issued an interim memorandum finding that conditions and treatment at the Center failed to meet the minimum standards required by the Constitution. It ordered the Director to prepare a written four year plan that would meet constitutional standards. That plan was submitted to the Court on April 24, 1983.

Public hearings on the plan were held by the Court in June 1983 at the District's Brooklyn and Uniondale courthouses. Parents and spokespersons for private and governmental agencies as well as unions representing workers at the Center appeared. During those hearings the Court issued oral orders to amend the Director's plan. As modified, that plan is now embodied in this Court's decree.

A. Definition

Mental retardation, the basis for residence at the Center, is defined as 1) significantly sub-average intellectual functioning (i.e., two standard deviations below the mean on an intelligence test), 2) combined with significant deficiencies in adaptive behavior (i.e., appropriate exercise of personal independence and social responsibility), and 3) manifested in the individual's developmental period.

Of 1,204 Center residents assessed as of March 1982, 11 were considered to be of normal intelligence, 40 to be mildly mentally retarded (IQ 52 to 69), 73 to be moderately retarded (IQ 36 to 51), 147 to be severely retarded (IQ 20 to 35), and 933 to be profoundly retarded (IQ below 20); the functioning level for 17 clients was unknown. Reduction in population has resulted in leaving the most difficult cases at the Center. Whereas the client population of the Center in 1974 (total 1,774) was 4% borderline or normal, 7% mildly retarded, 13% moderately retarded, 22% severely retarded, and 52% profoundly retarded, the comparable percentages at present are 1% normal, 3% mildly retarded, 6% moderately retarded, 18% severely retarded and 68% profoundly retarded. Approximately 55% of the current population is male; 1% is under age 12; 14% are between ages 13 and 20; 58% between ages 21 and 34; 24% between ages 35 and 64; and 2% are over age 65. Those who are of "normal" intelligence appear to have been sent to the Center as a result of historical mistakes in classification as in the case of a deaf mute who was thought to be retarded. Many of the clients were kept at home by their parents until, in their early adolescence, they became hyperactive and overwhelmed their families.

B. History

In post-medieval times the retarded, together with imbeciles, idiots, madmen, the feeble-minded and the insane, from whom they were not generally distinguished, were viewed as the progeny of the supernatural, and in the last several centuries as agents of the devil. See L. Kanner, A History of the Care and Study of the Mentally Retarded 5-7 (1964); W. Wolfensberger, The Origin and Nature of Our Institutional Models, in Changing Patterns in Residential Services for the Mentally Retarded (President's Committee on Mental Retardation, 1976) 36. Vestiges of that attitude may be found today. Recently, a 14 year old retarded boy was discovered who had been kept a virtual prisoner in his home from birth. The boy's father apparently feared that his son's condition would shame or embarrass the rest of his family. N.Y. Times, October 9, 1982, at 8, col. 6.

Impetus for the institutionalization of the mentally retarded may be traced to the reform impulse in Western social thought accompanying political upheavals at the end of the eighteenth century. The revolutionary legacy resulted in new perceptions of both the potential for human improvement and of the role of the state in providing the necessary services. Compare B.W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century 108 (Ballantine ed. 1979) ("cure being left to God").

In nineteenth century America the movement to institutionalize the mentally retarded arose in response to several interacting factors. The theoretical groundwork had been laid in France in the mid-eighteenth century when Jacob Rodrigues Pereire had shown that deaf mutes, thought completely uneducable until then, could be taught to read and communicate through sign language. See L. Kanner, supra, at 11. This led to the view that others, such as idiots who had likewise been thought to be incapable of responding to education, could benefit from it. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard's subsequent work with Victor, the "wild boy of Aveyon," further intensified professional interest in the education of idiots. Victor, an apparently severely retarded child was found in the forest, where he had roamed "wild" for some years, probably after his family had abandoned him. Gaspard taught him to walk upright, speak, feed and dress himself. See L. Kanner, supra, at 12-16; Mason and Menolascino, The Right to Treatment for Mentally Retarded Citizens: An Evolving Legal and Scientific Interface, 10 Creighton L.Rev. 124, 127-28 (1976).


To continue reading

Request your trial
16 cases
  • Society for Good Will to Retarded Children v. Cuomo
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
    • January 27, 1987
    ...New York. The history of the Center and its problems are fully described in published opinions. See, e.g., Society for Good Will to Retarded Children, Inc. v. Cuomo, 572 F.Supp. 1298, 572 F.Supp. 1300 (E.D.N.Y.1983), vacated and remanded, 737 F.2d 1239 (2d Cir.1984). While the census at the......
  • Conner v. Branstad
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of Iowa
    • December 9, 1993 the least restrictive setting. See Philipp v. Carey, 517 F.Supp. 513, 518 (N.D.N.Y.1981); Society for Good Will to Retarded Children, Inc. v. Cuomo, 572 F.Supp. 1300, 1347 (E.D.N.Y.1983), vacated, 737 F.2d 1239 (2nd Cir.1984); cf. Lelsz v. Kavanagh, 629 F.Supp. 1487, 1495 (N.D.Tex. 1986)......
  • Gieseking v. Schafer
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Missouri
    • August 13, 1987
    ...injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress." 2 See e.g. Society for Good Will to Retarded Children v. Cuomo, 572 F.Supp. 1300, 1349 (E.D. N.Y.1983) (Pennhurst I decision did not preclude the possibility of statutory liability arising from violations ......
  • Lelsz v. Kavanagh
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Texas
    • October 15, 1987
    ...or emergency care, but also regular and preventive treatment for ordinary or chronic ailments. Society for Goodwill to Retarded Children v. Cuomo, 572 F.Supp. 1300, 1344 (E.D.N.Y.1983), rev'd on other grounds, 737 F.2d 1239, 1245 (2d Cir.1984). Second, the Constitution requires reasonably s......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT