BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — William Szczygiel survived a troubled childhood in Buffalo, with a father he said was physically abusive.
Young Billy also had multiple placements in the foster care system -- some good and some bad.
“Going through the things I went through, I had some problems,” Szczygiel said. “I thought walking into an oncoming car might have solved it. I was only, I think, 7 at the time.”
That’s how Szczygiel ended up in the 1980s at the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center in West Seneca.
“I remember my room. It was all the way down the end of the hallway,” he said, as he tried to hold back tears.
Soon after his arrival, Szczygiel said he was thrown into a culture that would stir massive controversy and state hearings about child abuse in the state facility that was supposed to help at-risk kids like him.
A 1989 report by New York State concluded there were “32 separate child abuse and neglect cases...over a seven-month period” in 1988.
The report said 15 of the allegations involved “child-to child sexual behavior,” while eight more of the cases “related [to] an allegation of sexual contact between a child and a staff member.”
“They put needles in us and put us to sleep, and you know, you wake up and you feel funny,” Szczygiel said. “You wake up and you hurt in places you shouldn't.”
The state report also told of “a sex club” called the “G.I. Joe club” involving an “initiation rite...which included engaging in...sex with other children.”
Siegel remembers three other children being subjected to abuse.
“All four of us were touched,” he said. “All four of us were forced to touch each other.”
The report stated, “Staff stated to police that they had tried to get senior staff to do something...But senior staff told them not to be concerned, that what the children were doing was ‘normal behavior.’”
Szczygiel dismissed that sentiment.
“Having thought back on it and knowing what I know now today,” he said, “the things I know aren't normal. There's nothing normal about it.”
Szczygiel is now joining other survivors to file a Child Victims Act lawsuit against the state in the hopes that documents will be revealed. While some workers at the time were charged with crimes, Szczygiel said the full scope of the abuse was hidden from the public.
“Where was the people who are sworn to protect us from this sort of thing?” Szczygiel asked.
James Plastiras, a spokesman for the State Office of Mental Health, said in a statement that the agency could not comment because of pending lawsuits. But Plastiras added, “WNYCPC has a well-earned reputation as a family driven and youth guided organization that provides trauma informed care focused on hope and recovery for youth and families in WNY. Any allegations of abuse or neglect at OMH facilities must be reported and are fully investigated, as required by state law.”
Szczygiel said his main hope is that his story will inspire other survivors like him to speak out.
“I want these other kids to come out and talk about it,” he said. “If I can do it, they can do it.”