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

On the evening of September 25, 2002, Haseeb did not want to go to bed. Miller was irritable and angry, coming down off a high. He told Haseeb to go to bed several times, and then, when Haseeb didn't listen, he punched him in the stomach. He had done this before to control Haseeb, and other staffers had done it as well, he said.

"He kept coming up to me, and he kept coming up to me, and I kept punching him, and I kept punching him, and he wouldn't stop," Miller said. "I can't recall how many times."

There was no way Haseeb could ward off the blows. He weighed just 116 pounds, and Miller stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 265 pounds. When he was done, Miller was sweating profusely. He said he shut the door and walked away.

Complications from pneumonia when he was a baby caused permanent damage to Haseeb's brain.
Photos Courtesy of Farhat Chishty
Complications from pneumonia when he was a baby caused permanent damage to Haseeb's brain.
When Haseeb did not want to go to bed, his caregiver punched and kicked him more than a dozen times.
Photo Courtesy of Farhat Chishty
When Haseeb did not want to go to bed, his caregiver punched and kicked him more than a dozen times.

Most damaging to the school was Mil­ler's claim that his supervisors were aware of what he had done and had concocted a story of a seat-belt injury, claiming Haseeb had struggled against being restrained during his transportation from his previous residence to Denton State School. "I'm not saying we all huddled up and said, 'This is going to be the story.' It was something management came up with."

With the tape rolling, Miller claimed he wasn't trying to get even with the school, but rather hoped to right a wrong. "What happened there goes against every fiber of my being."

The next morning Miller turned himself in. Prosecutors at the Denton County District Attorney's Office charged him with injury to a disabled person, a first-degree felony. On August 11, 2006, Miller was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Despite the confession, the Texas Attorney General's Office, which represented the school in the Chishty suit, maintained that Haseeb's injuries — perforations to his intestines — were caused by a seat-belt injury on the trip from his previous residence to the school. True, Haseeb did not like being restrained, but his mother says she saw him immediately after the trip and didn't notice any injuries.

In April 2007, Reddell and Chishty took their findings to Austin, where each testified before the House Civil Practice Committee. They asked lawmakers to give the Chishty family a waiver from sovereign immunity, a legal defense which can protect the state from civil suits. Marianne Reat, an attorney with the Department of Aging and Disability Services, told the committee that an investigation into the matter had not found any evidence of abuse or neglect.

The House unanimously approved the request, but the Senate never acted on the bill. The lawsuit was dismissed last year after the state successfully defended on grounds of sovereign immunity.

Back in their home, the Chishty family says they still have a hard time believing what happened.

"We took all the avenues we could," says Haseeb's younger brother Saad. "Like any huge, overblown bureaucracy, they are designed to protect the institution instead of the people they serve."

His sister nods and talks about the toll this has taken on their mother. "Every day she is there; she's afraid to leave him alone for half an hour. It's taken over her life."

Their mother sits slumped on the sofa in their living room, listening. As her children talk, she thumbs through the pictures on her lap, and tears begin to stream down her face. She tells them how guilty she feels for the time she spends at the school. She has lost her job and her car, and now her oldest son helps support her financially. She is separated from her husband, who lives in Houston. Still, her deepest regret is that in some way she failed to protect Haseeb.

"The hardest thing for me," she says, recalling the scene of the crime, "is to think of him lying there all night, soaking in his own blood."

When Chishty is not at the Denton State School tending to Haseeb, she is often on the road, tending to his cause. Two legislative study groups are investigating the issues surrounding the state schools, and in February she testified in Dallas before one of them. If either committee introduces legislation during the 2009 legislative session, she plans on lobbying lawmakers to ensure they understand her position: that the large, cumbersome state schools are fraught with the potential for abuse and should be shuttered in favor of smaller, community-based facilities.

Her fight is one with a long history, one that began more than 30 years ago when a man named John Lelsz filed a lawsuit on behalf of his son, alleging that Richmond State School used inhuman methods to control its charges, including the use of cattle prods to administer electric shock therapy. The suit languished in the Dallas federal courts for years until Judge Barefoot Sanders, now retired, forged a settlement in 1991. Two state schools — in Fort Worth and Travis — were shut down as a result. Then-Governor Ann Richards considered closing others, but intense opposition, fueled largely by the Texas State Employees Union, killed the effort.

"It's kind of like closing a military base," says mental health rights advocate Garrison-Tate. "A lot of these places are in more rural areas — Brenham, San Angelo, Abilene — and they are an economic boon of that town."

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