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

There were some things about the school that worried her. Like the time she found a resident wandering along Interstate 35, not far from the campus. But she decided not to say anything. If she expected top-notch care — and she did — she needed to be on good terms with the staff.

On the morning of September 26, 2002, she says she phoned Haseeb's apartment to check on him and was told he had not eaten his breakfast. Haseeb could be a picky eater. She suggested the caregiver feed him a banana, but that hadn't worked, she was told. Then in a low voice, the staffer whispered, "Ms. Chishty, it's not good."

By the next morning, Haseeb's heart rate had risen to near critical levels, and his breathing was reduced to a labored pant. No one could explain what had ­happened.

Recalls Chishty, "When we got to the emergency room [at Denton Community Hospital] the doctor asked me, 'Can you ask him where he hurts, does he speak?' I said, 'Yes, he speaks.'" Haseeb told her his stomach hurt and when the doctor lifted Haseeb's shirt, she saw bruising from his stomach to his groin. "And then I sat down on the floor."

Doctors at the hospital said his injuries were consistent with someone who had suffered a traumatic car accident, but that didn't seem possible. He had only been at the school for four weeks, and during that time his family hadn't heard about any ­accidents.

For six months Haseeb lay in the ICU, during which time he had three major surgeries. The family pressed school officials for an explanation, but none came.

In January 2003, Chishty got a vaguely worded letter that raised her suspicions. She says the letter said a former employee had admitted to beating a resident who could have been Haseeb.

She says she expected some kind of an investigation, but nothing happened. School officials would not give her any additional information. She called State Representative Myra Crownover more than a dozen times, asking for help, but was ignored. (Crownover, who represents the district where the school is located, is a staunch supporter of state schools. She told the Observer that she was traveling when Chishty called, but that her director of constituent services met with her. "I didn't want to get involved in a legal matter," Crownover says.)

Chishty says she also called staff at the governor's office and was told there was nothing they could do. Figuring she had no other recourse, she hired Dallas attorney Kelly Reddell, who on September 23, 2004, filed a federal civil rights suit against the school, seeking monetary damages that would cover Haseeb's in-home care for the rest of his life.

What followed could have come from the pages of a John Grisham novel. Reddell hired a private investigator, who tracked down Miller, finding him in California through his unemployment checks. When Miller was served with the suit, he called Reddell and told her he had found Jesus, and said he was ready to come clean. Six months later, he hitchhiked to Dallas and gave Reddell a two-and-a-half-hour videotaped deposition.

For the school, Miller's admissions were damning. He said he had come to DSS looking for a purpose in life in August of 2001, but before long he was witnessing abuse. "There was the way we were trained to do things, and there was the way it worked in the real world," he said. "...There were techniques for everyone; different things worked for different people." To keep one resident under control, Miller said, he and other staff members used a large metal serving spoon. Sometimes they tapped it on the floor as a warning, and sometimes they beat the resident on the head with it. "It got to the point where it was fun beating them and hitting them and torturing them."

He also said he and other staffers regularly used drugs on the job, often slipping into the bathroom to snort cocaine or smoke methamphetamines. His supervisor was not only aware of drug use on the night shift, Miller said, he was also a user who bought painkillers from one of his employees. (The state has denied these charges, and the supervisor has said in a sworn affidavit that he never used drugs on the job or witnessed anyone else doing so. A nurse, who also worked during that time at the building where Haseeb lived, told the Observer none of Miller's claims are true.)

Once Miller had been fully "brought into the fold," he said, he began to see the sorts of abuse from which he had previously been shielded. Now, sitting on a couch stoned with other staffers, he watched as residents "ran into walls." Sometimes, he and his co-workers would throw balls at the residents as they passed by. "Basically, what it came down to was systematic torture of residents to get them to change their behavior," Mil­ler said.

Like other residents, Haseeb could be difficult, Miller said. Haseeb sometimes hit, scratched and pulled hair. He often refused to sit down for meals, to eat or to work in one of the school's workshops, according to court records. Occasionally, Haseeb grabbed him around the neck and dug his nails into Miller's skin.

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