Connections - 12.21.22

The Importance of Willowbrook and the Creation of Human Service Risk Management

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When Geraldo Rivera reported on the appalling conditions of the Willowbrook State School 50 years ago, the field of human service risk management did not exist. It was revealed then that this institution, and many like it, housed and hid years of secrets, teeming with neglect and abuse. This event was the catalyst which revolutionized the way supports are provided to individuals with disabilities.

The exposé rocked a foundation which had been built upon providing the least amount of support to the greatest number of people with little to no meaningful oversight, engagement, or dignity. Once these atrocities were known, it shined a light directly into the void that would become the Human Service Risk Management field.

“It forever changed the way society viewed people with developmental disabilities,” noted A Catalyst for Change (2022), “and sparked a movement in New York and nationwide to reform service delivery systems and recognize the unalienable civil rights for people with developmental disabilities.” Society could no longer live unburdened by the knowledge of these failings. Advocacy was born, and demanded human rights and systemic changes.

Now, the current human service field is a unique and complex risk environment with goals and expectations standing in stark contrast to the days of Willowbrook. Human Service Risk Management standards set a tone of accountability and expectation, shifting away from the former neglectful environment to one of proactive decision making.

These proactive decisions span across all areas of operation distinctly missing from the Willowbrook State School and those like it.

  • Assessing and revising training, policies, and procedures
  • Collaborating with subject matter experts in the area of human service risk management
  • Evaluating incident trends and making strides to mitigate risk exposure
  • Ensuring access to comprehensive medical, psychological, and personal care
  • Planning for the ongoing needs across a lifespan

The most successful and person-centered organizations have a foundation rooted in continuous improvement. They dedicate themselves to preventing the current system of services from backsliding, and value the input of the individuals and families they support. Most importantly, they make space for the evolution of practices. This ensures they will not hesitate when it comes to finding the best way to meet the changing needs of the people they support.

Heather McDermott is a Risk Management Specialist with Irwin Siegel Agency. She can be reached by emailing [email protected].

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