School Outings

Forcing all the retarded from institutions may not be in anyone's best interests

At the school, officials told her she couldn't see her little boy again for 30 days, and so she didn't. It took her ten years to recover from that terrible day. She still cries about it.

Her marriage did not survive. She went back to school, got her degree and eventually remarried. When she moved to Houston, she moved Walt to Richmond from Denton. That was more than 20 years ago.

She would have liked to have Walt live with her full-time but says that just doesn't work out. "My son has had severe behavior problems. Two and a half years ago his behavior went haywire. Last fall he broke a window out. It started with frustration about putting on a shoe."

"These are not just slow adults or childlike adults," Walt's mother cautions over and over. "These are people with real behavioral problems. They are mentally fragile."

Richmond superintendent Barbara Dawson, a former school teacher, argues, not surprisingly, that "choice" is the best option for Texas. Richmond, she says, provides services "for people whom the community is not ready to handle or cannot provide services for."

One of the key questions being debated by legislators is, of course, cost. Some say needs can be more cheaply provided for in a smaller group setting, particularly if the state mental institution left behind is nothing but an empty shell with few residents.

At Richmond, 250 people are in specially constructed wheelchairs, Dawson says, because they have so many physical and medical problems. "Probably we can provide more efficiently and economically for some of their needs because we have them grouped together. In a group home it is much more expensive to get specialists in to see them."

And this goes to other medical treatment as well. They have a consulting dentist on staff used to working with these patients and their special needs.

Charles Ferguson, who works with the Texas chapter of VOR, concurs. He has done his own cost study and believes the only way individuals and group homes can see service costs decrease over state school costs is if they don't provide services.

According to his research, it costs $46,687 a year to support someone in a state school. That same person's costs would rise to $69,947 in an eight-bed-or-fewer group home and to $78,787 a year in a group home of three or fewer beds. Texas Mental Health and Mental Retardation statistics show the average total cost of a state school resident at $71,868, but this is misleading, Ferguson says, because $25,181 of those costs are fixed (administration, maintenance and central office overhead) and unaffected by the addition of residents.

In the last half-year, Richmond State School has accepted 18 new residents, Dawson says. These are people believed incapable of being in the community. They have either significant medical and health problems or behavioral problems and mental illness.

Almost none are children anymore.

Walt Wingo has little capacity for abstract thought. Give him instructions, and they must be very concrete and specific. He cannot handle stairs. He cannot handle going to public restrooms because he doesn't know how to behave in them, so all of their outings have to be short, his mother says.

A few years ago Walt and his mother were walking together peacefully when they crossed paths with two young girls. Walt has an awkwardly rolling gait that gets him where he wants to go but isn't graceful. The moment is one that's hard for Louise to relate. She and her son just walking, doing something normal, enjoying the day. Two young girls passing the other way. Normal and pleasant.

As they crossed paths, one of the girls said something about "Frankenstein" to the other, making the common mistake of confusing the monster with his scientist maker's name. But the point was clear. It was a casual cruelty. And Walt heard it.

For the rest of the day, Louise says, Walt kept saying, "I'm not Frankenstein. I'm not Frankenstein."

For Louise the choice is made. "I really don't see the advantage of putting people in an urban setting where they're going to be ostracized and kept in all the time.

"I would prefer he be on that campus. He has more freedom. He's in a protected environment. He doesn't have to worry about predators or cars running over him."

Or being told he's a monster when he goes for a walk with his mama.

E-mail Margaret Downing at margaret_downing@

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