Protecting the helpless
Remember hearing about the school that encouraged disabled students to fight each other in Texas? Here's another piece of the puzzle:
Nearly 270 employees were fired or suspended for abusing or neglecting residents of large, state-run institutions for the mentally disabled in Texas during the last fiscal year, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. The revelations Friday come a day after Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation aimed at improving security and oversight at the 13 institutions, known as state schools. They are home to about 4,600 residents and more than 12,000 full-time employees.
Documents obtained by the AP through an open records request show that 11 of the 268 firings or suspensions were considered serious because they involved physical or sexual abuse that caused or may have caused serious physical injury. Employees may also be fired for a violation as mild as neglecting to protect a resident with mobility problems from stumbling into a wall. "I think what the number of firings and suspensions say is we do not tolerate abuse or neglect in our state schools," said Cecilia Fedorov, a spokeswoman with the Department of Aging and Disability Services, which oversees the schools.
It was not clear Friday whether any of those fired were prosecuted. The Department of Family and Protective Services, which investigates allegations of abuse, notifies law enforcement officials about any deaths, alleged sexual assaults, serious physical injuries or incidents involving children. But the agency does not track what happens once police or sheriff's deputies get involved, spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities said Perry's legislation doesn't go far enough to protect state school residents. "Why is it that residents in state schools are somehow valued less than other citizens?" asked Dennis Borel, the coalition's executive director. "This speaks to me of a widespread, systemic problem, and personally I don't believe this can be fixed."
Defenders of the state schools include the Parent Association for the Retarded of Texas. Susan Payne, the organization's vice president, said her 47-year-old sister, Dianne, has been well served in the 37 years she has lived in state schools. "The medical care is unbelievable. She is alive because of the schools," Payne said. "These numbers and these reports make the places sound like hellholes, and that is just not what we see."
Perry declared state school reform a legislative emergency during the most recent session. State lawmakers reached a five-year, $112 million settlement with the Justice Department that documented widespread mistreatment of residents and alleged their civil rights were violated. The state will spend $24 million in each of the next two fiscal years to meet the terms of the settlement, which call for each school to have an independent monitor. Lawmakers also have provided funding for hiring nearly 3,000 additional employees.
The agreement resulted from a series of federal investigations that found that at least 53 deaths from September 2007 to September 2008 were from conditions the Department of Justice considered preventable, such as pneumonia, bowel obstructions or sepsis, indicating lapses in proper care. Nearly 1,100 employees have been suspended or fired in the last five fiscal years for mistreating, neglecting or abusing residents, according to state records. The fiscal 2008 figures are the most in any of those five years.
I'm sure this problem is not just limited to Texas. But what a tragedy!