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.

Gladys Conner warned of what she said were high mortality rates experienced in other parts of the country when institutionalized people were dropped back in the community and many of them ended up homeless.

Dr. Harold Gottlieb said doctors in the community are often not equipped to deal with the special needs of the profoundly retarded. "An HMO's ten to 12 minutes is not enough time. They need physical and occupational therapy and one place where all their needs are taken care of."

John Fowler of the Richmond State School Parents Association said his 45-year-old daughter initially was placed in two group homes and it was a disaster because they couldn't handle her. He got her an emergency placement to Richmond, where she immediately was taken off all the medication she'd been on. She's been there about 20 years and has the freedom to walk around campus.

Richmond employee Renee Salazar helps hold Rita 
Sue for her picture with sister Ilene and mother Mary 
Rosenfield.
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.

Jeanetta Cooper is the niece of Robert Tracy Jr., a Richmond resident. "When my grandparents put my uncle in, they made a promise they would take care of Robert. No one can come and say, 'We're going to move you now.' "

Richard Wilfong has a 47-year-old schizophrenic daughter who requires supervision 24 hours a day. She stayed home until she was 13, then it was too much for them. She was sent to Brenham State School initially, but then moved out.

"Devon's hands don't work very well. She was put in a group home with a compulsory work program. She couldn't do the work. There was very little supervision. She was allowed to walk out anytime she wanted to. We had to work desperately to make sure she was returned to Brenham State School. She was unable to handle the situation," Wilfong said.

"It is great until they walk out of those community homes and start living under bridges."


Rita Sue is a stooped and tiny figure as she makes her way to the horse arena at Richmond State School, accompanied by longtime school employee Renee Salazar.

It's a big day, a huge day. Rita Sue is going to ride a horse for the first time, carefully surrounded by instructor Jesse Gonzales and his wife, Tammy, who volunteers there, as well as equine therapist Ruth Sebring.

It took three years to work up to this day. Three years of petting the animals in the petting zoo and the cats and then the horses. Arena manager Tracy Semmler sent a riding helmet over to Rita Sue in her dorm so she could get used to wearing it.

Rita Sue is up on the horse and quiet and not biting herself as she goes round and round and round. Her sister Ilene cries and hugs everyone standing nearby. Her mother beams from her wheelchair.

All doesn't go as well as soon as Rita Sue gets off the horse. She spots the crowd of onlookers and tries to get away. She's glad to see her mother and sister but wants nothing to do with anyone else. She bites her hands, covered with gloves, and Salazar moves quickly to stop her, to soothe and calm her. Rita Sue buries her head in Salazar's chest.

"When I first moved to El Campo five years ago to take care of Mom, I had had Rita come for an overnight," Ilene recalls. "I put Rita in her bedroom. All of a sudden around 3:30 in the morning I heard a cabinet slam. There was Rita completely dressed and all the lights were on. I stayed up. She rocked in the rocking chair. At 9:30 I was like a basket case. I was taking care of my mother and my sister. I had planned to take care of [Rita Sue] for two days. I called my husband. He took my sister back."

Moving Rita Sue to another facility would be devastating, Ilene is convinced. Richmond is the only state school with a horse-riding therapy program. So the last three years of accomplishment in that area of Rita Sue's life would be tossed away.

And then there's the proximity issue. "The tragedy of it is that she would probably be moved to Austin or Corpus Christi, and that's a pretty prohibitive trip." She's not sure it's one her 94-year-old mother could make.

"I can't talk to her on the telephone. I can't send her letters because she can't read. The only way you can reach her is to meet with her in person, face to face."

Dayle Bebee Aulds is the founder of Advocacy Inc. at its Austin headquarters. She looks at years of work and sees the recent reorganization of the Texas human services system (effective September 1) as a sea change in how social service needs are going to be met in this state. "You have a new generation of administrators. The people now coming into the human services area, their goal is to save money. Previously these people were social workers who worked their way into administrative positions."

Despite her organization's years of litigation and advocacy to get people released from state schools in Texas and mainstreamed into the community, Aulds says some people, like Rita Sue, are best served staying at places like Richmond State School.

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