By Terri Langford- Houston Chronicle
It's been a tough several months for the $500 million state school system for the mentally disabled.
First, the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS), the operator of the residential facilities, found itself a federal target when it was named in December in a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report on the condition of state schools.
Investigators found that 53 of the 114 deaths of state school residents over a one-year period could have been prevented. They also determined that restraints were used too often — 10,143 times on 751 residents during the first nine months of 2008 alone.
Also documented: Some 200 staff members were fired in one 12-month period. And, despite plans to move more residents out of the state schools, only 164 residents were placed in a community-based care facility in a 12-month period.
But just as Texas officials began dealing with the Justice fallout, they were hit in March with disturbing video images that showed Corpus Christi State School staff members forcing mentally disabled residents into fights for their own entertainment.
Finally some good news out of the 81st Texas Legislature: a $112 million plan to improve conditions at the 11 schools and two centers.
“It allows DADS to continue with a clear action plan,” explained Cecilia Fedorov, a DADS spokeswoman.
The pact adds 1,160 new positions, most of whom will be direct care workers, and calls for people who will monitor conditions at the facilities.
“I hope it works,” said State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who sits on the Senate's Health and Human Services Committee. “Obviously, I think we can do more outside of the settlement.”
For Uresti, the most important component of the plan is the monitors.
“If things don't improve, those monitors will recognize that,” he said.
But critics, who claim the state school system is outmoded, say the Justice agreement is deja vu.
“We're back,” complained Beth Mitchell, managing attorney for Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit group that works to protect the legal rights of disabled Texans. “It's all the same stuff.”
Mitchell was referring to a series of pacts that ended a decades-old lawsuit that charged — like the recent Justice Department report did — that conditions within the system were not acceptable.
Monitors were called, and better reporting of abuse was requested, she said. And now, it seems the state is right back where it was in the 1990s, when the 1974 lawsuit filed on behalf of John Lelsz Jr., a severely disabled state school resident, was settled for the third time.
Mitchell said this federal-state pact is too vague when it comes to pinpointing exact timetables and plans to move residents into the community. Also, while there is a provision for more monitors, the settlement is a little light on what type of qualifications those people should possess.
“There are no benchmarks or standards for what the monitors are supposed to follow to make sure the state schools have adequate treatment,” Mitchell said.
DADS officials still were not sure how the new settlement will be different from the series of reforms made in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the landmark Lelsz lawsuit.
“I'm not familiar with that particular lawsuit,” Fedorov said.
Mitchell also pointed to the fact that it does nothing to remedy the retention problems state schools have with the direct care staff, who escort and guide residents in their daily activities.
In the past two years, 376 state school workers were fired for abuse and neglect; and 70 percent of those workers were entry-level aides, whose starting salary is about $20,000 a year.
Lawmakers did not approve a proposed pay raise for these staffers. About half of all state school employees turn over each year.
But parents of state school residents, like Nancy Ward, who live in fear that the institutions will be closed, support the new pact.
“I am hoping that will help,” said Ward, who helps run the Parent Association for the Retarded of Texas and has watched the legal machinations for decades. Her 47-year-old daughter Dianne Ward, entered the state school system when she was 10 years old. Today Diane lives at Denton State School.
“For one thing, the work won't be as hard,” she said, if more workers are added. “A lot of them work two jobs.”