01:14 PM CDT on Friday, May 22, 2009
By EMILY RAMSHAW / The Dallas Morning News email@example.com
AUSTIN – The agency that oversees the state schools for the disabled must hire more than 1,000 new direct care workers and drastically improve living conditions at the facilities, under a $112-million, 5-year settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The agreement, approved by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this week, follows a four-year federal investigation that found widespread civil rights violations across Texas' 13 state schools for people with disabilities.
It's a response to years of media reports about abuse and neglect in the facilities, culminating this winter with news of an employee-orchestrated "fight club" at the Corpus Christi State School.
"The abuse that has taken place is inexcusable," said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. "We are all ready for a new beginning in our efforts to take care of and protect Texans with disabilities."
In a legislative hearing on the agreement on Friday, officials with the Department of Aging and Disability Services stressed that they have not been waiting for the sign-off to improve
conditions at the state schools.
"We've reduced the use of restraints, strengthened training of direct care workers and added hundreds of staff across the state," agency commissioner Addie Horn said. "Care for those in state schools is continually improving."
And lawmakers have already passed a bill and agreed to spend millions to improve safety at the state schools, emergency legislation ordered by Gov. Rick Perry. The state budget also includes a provision that would move some people out of the state schools into community-based care – and consider such a move for others.
Under the federal settlement agreement – which was nearly complete back in October, but held over for several months because of the new presidential administration – the agency and the Justice Department must make more than 1,000 direct care hires and appoint several independent monitors to oversee the state schools as they implement the changes. Depending on how effective the state schools are at instituting reform, they could be eligible for release from oversight in as little as a year.
Other terms of the agreement include:
• Hiring dozens of new investigators to more quickly review abuse and neglect allegations.
• Improving the quality of medical, dental and psychological care for residents, and providing more preventative care.
• Toughening penalties for failing to report abuse, or engaging in retaliation, and increasing training for identifying mistreatment.
• Ensuring residents are receiving individualized care, and are moved to the most integrated living setting.
• Curbing the use of physical restraints in state schools.
• Getting informed consent before administering psychotropic drugs to state school residents.
Lawmakers must pass a resolution approving the agreement by the end of the legislative session. As of Friday, the $45 million lawmakers would have to spend in the next two years to comply with the agreement was not included in the state appropriations bill, but lawmakers said they are hopeful it will be included in a supplemental budget.
"It's important that we move quickly," Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, said.
Added Nelson: "I fear what will happen if we don't."
But some lawmakers said it shouldn't have taken a settlement agreement – or even widespread reports of abuse – to get to this point. They acknowledged they should've set aside funding for improvements earlier.
"I want the people of Texas to know we have to do more as a state to protect the people that we are entrusted to care for," said Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi.