Wednesday, February 4, 2009

TX: Troubled state schools under information blackout

AUSTIN — The agency in charge of Texas institutions for the mentally disabled has imposed a near blackout on information about the troubled facilities, which Gov. Rick Perry this week declared an emergency issue for lawmakers.

Facing federal pressure to correct widespread abuse and neglect in the facilities known as state schools, the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services has quashed more than a dozen requests for information in the past two years, the San Antonio Express-News reported Wednesday.

The agency clamped down in response to a Justice Department investigation that found at least 53 state schools residents died in 2007 from preventable conditions that were often the result of lapses in care.

Open records requests ranged from statistics on abuse and neglect to staffing vacancies. A review of Texas attorney general's opinions showed DADS invoked the threat of possible litigation from the Justice Department in order to withhold information, the newspaper reported.

"People have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent, as well as how our most vulnerable citizens are being treated," said Jeff Garrison-Tate, president of the group Community Now! that advocates for the mentally disabled.

On Tuesday, Perry's office said the state has "a duty to ensure the safety" of those living in those facilities.

DADS releases reports that assess how well facilities follow a wide sweep of regulatory rules. Cecilia Federov, an agency spokeswoman, said family members can use those reports and other tools to gauge the risk of state schools.

For example, the agency posts online lists of state regulations that facilities have violated in recent years. But the Web site doesn't include any specifics about the allegations or incidents the agency investigated.

Government agencies must publicly disclose information after giving it to the opposing party in the anticipated litigation. But agencies aren't requested to let the person who requested the information know what happens.

Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said he thinks there is limited potential for state agencies to abuse the litigation exception because the records can only be withheld temporarily.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, working with Perry's office, has filed a bill that would create a governor-appointed ombudsman to investigate injuries and deaths and oversee the institutions known as state schools.

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