By TERRI LANGFORD
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
May 17, 2009, 3:11PM
Since 2004, 800 state school employees have been suspended or fired for abusing residents.
Hundreds of abuse complaints involving the mentally disabled residents of Texas state schools are made to local police each year but rarely do they result in criminal charges, largely because the cases are too difficult to prove, according to a three-year snapshot of data obtained by the Houston Chronicle.
Two months after cell phone images revealed how staffers at Corpus Christi State School organized fights between residents, records show only 4 percent of 2,814 state school abuse cases flagged by Texas Adult Protective Services to local police as possible crimes between fiscal years 2005 and 2008 are eventually proven or “confirmed” by APS as abuse.
For the past two years, conditions within Texas state schools have been the focus of federal investigators who have criticized the system’s deadly lapses in health care and civil rights abuses. Since 2004, 800 state school employees have been suspended or fired for abusing residents. Last week, a tentative agreement was reached between Texas and the U.S. Department of Justice to boost staffing and improve medical care at 11 state schools and two residential centers for the mentally disabled.
By law, APS workers must investigate every bruise or abnormality found on a resident if a state school staffer or family member suspects abuse or neglect. The state will not release the names of state school abuse victims, making it impossible to track exactly how many of the 2,814 APS abuse referrals to police actually make it into a courtroom.
But Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson, whose office investigates cases referred from Mexia State School, which has the most abuse referrals in the state, said his officers often face the same hurdles that APS workers do. Victims with limited mental abilities are tough to interview.
“We get a ton of referrals that don’t end up in the criminal courts because there is not enough to go with, or are unfounded,” Wilson said. During the three-year period that ended last Aug. 31, Wilson’s office was notified of 857 abuse cases at Mexia State School.
Of those, only 12 percent were later confirmed by APS workers as abuse.
‘Mental issues’ a barrier
Considering the much lower standard used by APS workers, where only a “preponderance of evidence” is needed, few of the 105 Mexia cases likely resulted in criminal charges, which must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“It’s almost impossible to prosecute because of their mental issues,” Wilson said. Those mental issues include short-term memory problems and even a total lack of communication skills.
“Hopefully, your alleged victim is able to speak to you,” said Sharon Thetford, an APS investigator in Central Texas. Many victims she faces can talk, she said, but others must rely on picture boards or blinking “once for yes, twice for no” during interviews.
Complaint data varies widely between schools.
Officials say they believe the residents’ age and health are one reason. The experience of a state school staff is another.
Mexia, San Angelo and Corpus Christi, the three state facilities with the largest number of abuse complaints referred to police, also house the majority of mentally disabled individuals who are also accused of criminal offenses.
At Mexia, residents are younger, most are in their 20s and more active, and more likely to get hurt even by accident. There are also 66 children housed there, many of whom are teens accused of committing a crime.
“While all of those are facts, there is no excuse for ever abusing, neglecting or exploiting any of the residents we serve,” said Cecilia Fedorov, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, which oversees the 11 state schools.
But Fedorov does concede that the age and health of Mexia’s population, along with the fact that a state school has a higher turnover of staff, does appear to explain why the school has so many complaints.
One facility praised
Richmond State School, like Mexia, has just under 500 residents but had the lowest abuse referrals to police: 21. Of those, none were confirmed.
One reason: 83 percent of the residents are severely or profoundly mentally disabled. And of Richmond’s 460 residents, 93 are considered “medically fragile.”
“The population that Mexia State Schools serves is very different than the population Richmond State School serves,” Fedorov said.
Richmond Superintendent Al Barrera also credits his staff; many have spent their entire career at the school.
“We have the most tenured staff in the system,” he said.
Lillian Randle, 45, has spent 29 years working for the state, the last 10 at Richmond. “And I’m loving every minute if it,” she said. “It’s a job where you can always be happy.”