Saturday, May 23, 2009

TX: Agency overseeing state schools to hire more than 1,000 new workers

12:00 AM CDT on Saturday, May 23, 2009

By EMILY RAMSHAW / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – The agency that oversees the state schools for the mentally disabled will hire more than 1,000 new workers and drastically improve living conditions at the facilities under a five-year, $112 million 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.

It's a response to years of media reports about abuse and neglect in the facilities, culminating with news this winter that employees orchestrated a "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."

But critics of the state schools question whether pouring money and more employees into them will fix a system they say is fundamentally broken. They argue lawmakers have hiked funding and approved new hires in previous years, only to see the problems continue.

"What did we get for our money? Fight clubs, suicides, deaths that could've been prevented," said Jeff Garrison-Tate, who runs the nonprofit Community Now!

In a legislative hearing on the agreement 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.

And lawmakers have already passed a bill and agreed to spend millions to improve safety at the state schools through emergency legislation ordered by Gov. Rick Perry.

Under the federal settlement agreement, the agency and the Justice Department must hire more than 1,000 workers and appoint several independent monitors to oversee the state schools as they implement the changes.

But the hiring goal may be difficult to meet. Two years ago, lawmakers authorized the state schools to hire nearly 1,700 new employees, and 300 of these positions remain unfilled. State officials say they expect to have them filled by the end of August.

Lawmakers must pass a resolution approving the agreement by the end of the legislative session. As of Friday, the roughly $45 million that lawmakers would have to spend in the next two years to comply with the agreement was not included in the state budget, but lawmakers said they are hopeful it will be included in a supplemental spending bil

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