Texas Woman Fights Abuse at the State's Schools for the Mentally Retarded

Her son was beaten up by an angry caregiver at Denton State School

The Observer also spoke with nearly a dozen former and current employees at the Denton State School. These workers — nurses, direct-care aides, investigators and others — have never before spoken to the press, worried that doing so would cost them their jobs. They are speaking now because they say they are overburdened and near the breaking point, often being asked to work back-to-back shifts. Turnover at Denton State School, according to the Texas State Employees Union, is an astronomical 54 percent. The reasons are obvious: low pay, a largely unskilled staff and an increasingly dangerous patient population. Says one employee, "No one really trains you in how to deal with a person who comes up to you and says, 'The devil wants me to kill you.'"

None of this surprises Farhat Chishty. For the last six years, she has been a constant presence at the Denton State School. She passes between the buildings, almost ghostlike, pushing her son's heavy wheelchair along the shaded walkways. Her eyes are black, ringed in shadows; her cheeks are sunken and hollow. She walks hunched over, as if she is carrying a thousand sorrows.

While most staff steer clear of her, others feed her information. They slip notes in her car, or call after hours to report abuse they have seen. Thanks in part to her efforts — she is a fixture at public hearings regarding state schools — the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is investigating the school.

Superintendent Randy Spence says he never would have stayed at Denton School if all the media reports criticizing his facility were true.
Mark Graham
Superintendent Randy Spence says he never would have stayed at Denton School if all the media reports criticizing his facility were true.
Family members say Manuel Lopez, a 21-year resident of the school who died in January, regularly had bruises on his legs and face.
Photo courtesy of the Lopez family
Family members say Manuel Lopez, a 21-year resident of the school who died in January, regularly had bruises on his legs and face.

What she has found, she says, is worse than anyone knows. "It's not one person. It's the system. They think I'm evil for being here, but the system is evil. They can't admit that because if they do, they admit that the system is wrong."

It's a warm Sunday afternoon in April, and Chishty is at her small Richardson home after a morning visit to Denton State School. She sits in the shadows of her front room with her shoes off, her bare feet curled up beneath her. Much of her youthful beauty — her high cheekbones, her striking dark eyes — is still present in her face.

Two of her sons — handsome young men with college degrees — are also here, as is her daughter, who through this ordeal has become her closest confidant. They catch up on jobs and kids and Haseeb, and then Farhat disappears for a moment and comes back with a box full of pictures. Here is Haseeb as a boy in Iran, wearing a lavender vest of velvet. Here is Haseeb and his brother Saad, clowning for the camera. Here is Haseeb at Denton State School, a week before the attack. He is standing against a picnic bench, his face toward the sun. He looks unhappy, agitated.

The oldest of her four children, Haseeb was born in Saudi Arabia in 1973. At ten months, on a trip to Pakistan, he contracted pneumonia, and the complications of the disease, which nearly killed him, caused permanent damage to his brain. After that, he never functioned like other children.

They had never wanted to put him in an institution, Farhat says. And in 1990, when his family moved to Norman, Oklahoma, Haseeb began taking special education classes. But at 21, state law said he could no longer go to school. The loss of structure and meaningful activities was difficult for him, and he often grew bored at home. "He would just get up and walk outside, go in the street," she says. "On more than one occasion I had to call the police. I didn't know where he was."

Because the family couldn't afford to keep him at home with a full-time caregiver, they placed Haseeb in a state-run facility five minutes from their Norman home. It seemed like a good fit. She visited him nightly, and on weekends he came home.

But in 1995, after the state of Oklahoma consolidated its mental health and mental retardation services, Haseeb was moved to a facility three hours away, and his mother began looking for a new place for him to live. She eventually settled on Denton State School, which at the time was the highest-rated public institution in Texas for people with mental retardation. After visiting the campus, she felt reassured. Haseeb's apartment would be as nice as anything she would find in the private sector. The apartment was his home, she was told; the school wasn't an institution, it was a community.

She saw residents freely roaming the sidewalks. Others were on their way to work in one of the school factories. Some were headed to the gym, which featured basketball courts and a swimming pool. The school's medical equipment appeared state-of-the-art; the school even had an on-site wheelchair factory. It reassured her that the school went to such lengths to ensure its residents were not only cared for, but comfortable.

Chishty, who at the time was pursuing a second bachelor's degree at the University of Central Oklahoma, took a three-month leave of absence from work and moved in with her daughter in McKinney, Texas, to help Haseeb settle in. She visited him every day, staying until the staff asked her to leave at night, often bringing him his favorite Middle Eastern food.

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