Beggars Can't Be Choosers

Parents plead with the state not to shut down the state schools for the mentally retarded. But it looks like a done deal.

Betsy Schwartz, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Houston, a patient advocacy group, was at the public hearing to speak on state hospitals, such as Rusk State Hospital in East Texas.

"If the intent is to save money, then they shouldn't close any state schools or hospitals," she says. If, however, the money would return to Harris County to help with the housing and support-services needs of the mentally retarded and mentally ill here, then she would support that.

What she doesn't want to see is the money taken from an already seriously underfunded mental health system (Texas is in the bottom set of states in terms of mental health and mental retardation funding) and put into building more roads or prisons.

Richmond employee Renee Salazar helps hold Rita 
Sue for her picture with sister Ilene and mother Mary 
Daniel Kramer
Richmond employee Renee Salazar helps hold Rita Sue for her picture with sister Ilene and mother Mary Rosenfield.
Rita Sue takes her first horseback ride on Bullet.
Daniel Kramer
Rita Sue takes her first horseback ride on Bullet.

Of course, the people who would be affected by the closure of Richmond aren't just the residents and their families. With 1,300 employees, Richmond State School is the eighth-largest employer in Fort Bend County, and many of its employees lack college degrees.

The legislature did acknowledge that when it set some criteria for assessment. The institutions will be judged on their proximity to other facilities, administrative costs, facility conditions, ease of client transfer and marketability of the property -- as well as the availability of job opportunities in the area for displaced employees.

Showing bipartisan support, state Representatives Dora Olivo, a Rosenberg Democrat, and Sugar Land Republican Charles Howard spoke against the closure.

"When we passed Rider 55, there was no intent that Richmond State School would ever be closed," Howard said. "There are lots of ways to cut money without cutting citizens who need care. Nothing is more important than the clients themselves. Richmond needs some repair. But it does a lot with what it has."

Olivo agreed. "One of the things I'm about is meaningful choice. We're taking that away. It's slowly eroding."

And several people criticized the study itself, saying it didn't factor into the equation the needs of the patients. One man took issue with Harris County being included in the employment pool statistics, saying it diluted the true impact that closure would have on the surrounding community. Nearly all of the employees come from Fort Bend County or Wharton, several people said.

As to the marketability of the property, both Howard and Herb Apple of the Greater Fort Bend Economic Council questioned whether the 241-acre site and buildings could be marketed or if the property would revert to the George Foundation. According to Richmond State School officials, that question is now being researched in the land records of more than 30 years ago.

Olivo didn't think much of the "marketability" criterion. "Marketability when we're talking about people who can't take care of themselves? That's not a good word to use."

Apple, who described himself as "an expert on marketability," said no one should expect any windfall with the sale of the school. "That land is poorly positioned."

Not everyone at the meeting was against closing some of the schools. Judy Kantorczyk, executive director of The Arc of Greater Houston, asked the group to "look honestly at any consolidation so we can concentrate on direct care services." The Arc advocates the end of institutional settings for all patients in the mental health system, a position that is not altogether unbiased for the nonprofit, since it makes its money from the patients who enroll in its community-based services and it advocates on behalf of private providers.

David Truran of Advocacy Inc. of East Texas, a nonprofit advocacy group for the disabled, said his organization is on record calling for the closure of long-term facilities. At the same time, he said, "We do not want to see the money go into potholes and roads. It's not a bait and switch." With care and planning, he said, Texas could move people without negative impact. Studies have shown that "all individuals, regardless of age, show positive gains…after moving to a community setting."

And Melanie Oldham, who has spent 22 years as a physical therapist and has a child with mental illness and another with mental retardation and mental illness, said there was less risk of neglect in a community-based system where the parent can be right there to see what's going on.

But far and away most parents took their turns offering up bittersweet anecdotes about their children's problems, the hard and sometimes heartbreaking choices they had to make and the solutions that Richmond and other state schools have provided.

The mother of a 40-year-old blind, mentally retarded child who went to Austin State School at age seven said: "He couldn't do anything for himself except play with a string."

One parent of a 59-year-old said he was glad his son, who has a lot of medical problems, was right by Polly Ryon Memorial Hospital. Another father said, "We had 18 years of misery in our home for our son. Misery for him more than us. He's been at Brenham [State School] and he's got a life."

Louise Abt talked of her son Walt Wingo, who has "huge problems" and has been institutionalized since he was four years old, coming to Richmond when he was 18. With all this talk of returning the institutionalized to the community, Abt said that people should understand that for Walt, Richmond is the community. "Walt is deeply attached to the good people who work there."

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