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She needed help — and wound up in hell.
It was 1967, and Jill Palmer Sovacool was struggling with suicidal thoughts amidst a home life tinged with violence.
She claims she was the product of an abusive upbringing, where she was once smacked in the face — knocking her neck out of alignment — because she failed to find a bat mitzvah dress.
Depression followed. A psychiatrist recommended the teenager commit herself to a White Plains mental hospital for therapy. Her dysfunctional family agreed.
But instead of treatment, the 15-year-old fell into the clutches of a man she says sexually abused her for months, while staff and fellow patients silently looked on, until she became pregnant, she charges in a lawsuit.
Yet despite the horrors she faced, Sovacool believes the son she went on to have and put up for adoption eventually saved her life.
“I met my abuser two days after I was admitted,” she recalled. “He told me he was 15. He was not.” Kenneth Connelly was actually 20.
“Even in that era, there was no excuse for what they did. They absolutely failed on all levels,” Sovacool said of the century-old facility then known as New York Hospital-Westchester Division. “I was in a horror movie. That’s how I felt.”
Connelly allegedly asked her age, how long she’d been there, and to sit next to her during movie night, she recalled.
He grabbed her head in the dark, whispering, “You’re going to like this,” and began licking her ear, Sovacool charges.
“I said I didn’t like it,” she said.
The episode evolved into brazen abuse in hallways, stairwells, gardens, on the bus to activities, and at the local pool, she said in a newly filed Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit.
During group activities in the library, Connelly forced her to fondle his penis, Sovacool claims.
“No one will notice, no one will pay attention. Just do it.”
He spit the words through gritted teeth, squeezing her wrists and pulling her toward him as he pushed her hand down his pants, Sovacool claims. She said she still remembers the sound of the squeaking chair.
“No one did notice. No one did pay attention,” she told The Post. “I was so mortified. I froze.”
Hospital staff branded her promiscuous, she said in the lawsuit.
“If you look in my chart they said I couldn’t control myself around the opposite sex,” the now 68-year-old retired registered nurse said. “If they asked me, I would have told them he forced me. I tried to avoid it. I couldn’t.”
Instead, hospital records noted Sovacool’s “boyfriend,” according to the litigation.
“She came to them for aid, and they abandoned her,” said Sovacool’s lawyer, Jennifer Freeman.
Sovacool’s pregnancy was discovered just as the facility’s doctors sought to send her to a state hospital for lack of progress. Her doctor, Robert Bruce Poundstone, had done little to help her, labeling her psychotic, then changing the diagnosis twice more, said Sovacool.
Instead of being sent to a massive institution, she was rerouted to a home for wayward mothers in Manhattan, to give birth.
“If I had gone to a state hospital, I probably never would have come out. My son saved my life,” she said.
She gave birth in February 1969. She had just turned 17.
“I wanted to keep him,” she said of the baby she called Jim.
The next eight weeks were an emotional rollercoaster as she considered their future. “I would talk to him, and sing to him, and rock him. I was not afraid to bond with him at all,” Sovacool remembered.
Connelly met the baby.
“He came to the hospital. It was my third night there. I wanted to know if he would financially support me. He said he would,” she said.
Unsure of what to do, a fellow patient’s advice became a lifeline.
“She said to me, ‘You have to determine if the father of your child will be a good influence on him or a bad influence,’” Sovacool said.
After the hospital, she moved in with her older sister in Manhattan, temporarily putting her baby in private foster care where he would be looked after while she continued high school. She would even be allowed to visit.
But Sovacool didn’t return to see her son. “I was afraid I’d fall in love with him all over again,” she said.
Then she had a chance encounter with Connelly.
“He was selling drugs out of an ice cream truck. I asked him what kinds. He said, ‘You name it, I got it,’” she claims. “The very next day, I made an appointment to sign the final papers. I needed to put this child someplace where he could have a normal life, with normal people.”
“I knew the right thing to do for my son was to get him out of the nightmare that was my life.”
What followed Sovacool calls “20 years of chaos.”
While confident in her choice, the decision to give up her baby left Sovacool deeply depressed. She was on medication, and briefly continued therapy with Poundstone, who died in 2007.
She left New York to attend school in Chicago; there, she finally got the help she needed from a psychiatrist.
“He was the exact opposite of Poundstone. He talked, we interacted, he gave me advice that helped me for the rest of my life.”
She relocated to South Carolina, graduating community college. In her early 30s, Sovacool went to nursing school.
“I got so much positive feedback … my self-respect changed dramatically through the course of becoming a registered nurse,” she said.
Twice married and divorced, Sovacool reconciled with her parents, but never had other children. Losing her son, she said, “just took the stuffing out of me. Anytime anyone would bring him up to me, it would leave me in tears.
“I wanted my son,” she told The Post, crying. “It hurt every day.”
She signed up for every adoption reunion registry she could as soon as she was able, hoping he would find her one day.
“For a decade I had a hole in the pit of my belly, and it stayed there until my son found me,” she said.
One day, her mother called about her son. She said, “I really want you to find Jim. I’m getting older.”
Sovacool began to imagine the reunion, almost willing it to happen.
“I had a conversation with him in my head. I said, ‘Jim, it’s time for you to show up.’”
Three days later, the phone rang. It was one of the adoption reunion agencies.
“I could barely breathe.”
After a brief chat with Sovacool, the agency rep gave her her son’s number.
“I had tears streaming down my face. I had to dial the number four or five times. I was crying and laughing.”
They talked for hours.
“And we haven’t stopped talking since.”
Sovacool told her son her story. She was able to get to know him, travel with him and even attend his wedding.
Frederick James Varker, now 51, grew up in New Jersey with a loving older couple who couldn’t have their own kids. They played music, just as Sovacool had requested of the adopters. He still lives in the same home and community he was raised in, she said.
“My son has been a big supporter through all of this.”
She believes Connelly died at age 29 of a drug overdose.
The alleged abuse, and the hospital’s inaction, changed her life, said Sovacool, who is suing the facility under New York’s Child Victim’s Act, which opened a legal window to revive old cases.
“It colored my relationship with my parents for my entire life,” she said of her time at the psychiatric facility.
She hopes others who may have been victimized at the hospital, which is now known as Westchester Behavioral Health Center, part of New York Presbyterian Hospital, come forward. New York Presbyterian did not return a request for comment.
“There are people who truly care, who will listen to you and you will be believed,” said.
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