By Jeff Balke
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Walt Wingo is a 39-year-old man with a bright smile, a black cowboy hat and an IQ less than his age. He has lived in state institutions for the mentally retarded since he was four years old. Every other weekend his mother takes him from Richmond State School to her nearby home for a visit, and they have a fine old time. She sees him during the week at the school where he spends his days in the workshop, jokes with friends, goes on shopping trips and enjoys other activities with fellow residents. It is a routine that both makes the most of and acknowledges the limitations of a man who will never get any smarter, who will never be able to run fast like the wind, who will never train to be a busboy at McDonald's.
It is a routine his mother, Louise Abt, fears will be shattered by a move in Texas and across the country to put the mentally retarded -- no matter how severe their disabilities -- back living in the community. Because she does not see how Walt will make his way among dangers like the cars he has never learned to fear and the people he sometimes does.
And so she is afraid. She worries that some well-meaning people will push her son out, thinking that they are doing the best for him. She is afraid they've confused him with some of the mildly retarded people they've met or read about, people who are able to function well in the outside world with only a little extra training, a little extra help. She fears that some agencies that want more money for their own operations will succeed in convincing the Legislature to close all the state mental institutions. Mostly she is terrified that she won't live long enough to protect her son.
"I have to live 20 minutes longer than he does. I cannot die."
Richmond State School, where Walt Wingo lives now, has a long and varied history, and like most mental institutions, not all of it is pleasant. Opened in 1968 to offer treatment for the mentally retarded, the facility in Fort Bend County grew rapidly, housing adults and children. It now has about 600 residents, downsized from its heyday numbers of about twice that many. It has a therapeutic riding program, a swimming program, other recreational activities and church services.
It does a lot of good things, but there have been complaints over the years that not all is utopia there.
The late John Lelsz Sr. played a pivotal role in the treatment of mentally retarded residents of state institutions in Texas. In 1974 he filed a lawsuit alleging his son had been mistreated at the Austin State School. This action resulted in Texas's moving thousands of the mentally retarded from institutions to community homes. It also ultimately led to the closure of Travis State School and the Fort Worth State School in the mid-1990s.
In 1995 Lelsz filed a lawsuit against Richmond State School, alleging that John Jr. had been mistreated, that he had suffered a separated shoulder, a head gash requiring six stitches, a black eye and swollen face. An earlier investigation at Richmond had revealed that the school had used cattle prods to administer electric shock therapy on Lelsz (reportedly a very difficult patient) and two other clients.
In June of the following year, Richmond State School fired an employee accused of hitting a woman with a board, leaving marks on her back. This came in the midst of at least 21 reports of abuse or neglect, according to Houston Chronicle articles. Most cases were reported from two dorms occupied by residents who were unable to talk, the Fort Bend County Sheriff's office told the Chronicle.
Barbara Dawson became Richmond's superintendent a few months after these incidents. It was on her watch that findings of understaffing by the state threatened to close Richmond last year. The Texas Department of Human Services gave Richmond 23 days to fix the staffing problems, citing client neglect because of staff shortages.
Although Richmond met the state minimums for the number of caregivers per resident, Dawson says the closure threat occurred because the school was judged to fall short when the severity of some of the residents' needs was brought into the equation. As more mentally retarded people are moved out of state institutions, the ones left behind are the ones needing the most careful supervision. At the same time, pay levels for frontline workers at Richmond remain so low that a single mother with two children working full-time for the school can still qualify for food stamps, Dawson said.
So with these stories fresh in mind, why would any parents who cared about their children be fighting to keep them at Richmond?
"We're going to have abuse anywhere in a caretaking environment," Louise Abt says. The difference is, she says, "it can't go on too long here. There are too many people." In group homes, she feels, there are no such safeguards.
She doesn't forget the old days when people were told to institutionalize a child and forget about him and staffs were unresponsive to parents. But things have improved greatly since then, she says. Richmond's employees are good to her son, she says.