By Aaron Reiss
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By Dianna Wray
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The Mexia State School, for example, employs one in four residents, adds Cecilia Fedorov, a spokesperson with the Department of Aging and Disability Services. "If you represent one of those districts, and you close down a place like that, you're committing political suicide," says Garrison-Tate.
Although advocacy groups continued their push to get people with cognitive disabilities into community-based facilities, nothing stoked the prospect of change more than the December 2006 report of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the Lubbock State School. "It was more horrific than we ever imagined," says Garrison-Tate.
The 43-page report revealed that the Lubbock school was severely understaffed and was providing its residents an alarmingly low level of care. The report noted that the school had almost no training for medical emergencies and had one full-time psychiatrist, who had a caseload of 180 residents. Some of the observations noted in the report seemed like something straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. On June 5, 2005, for example, a male resident was told he could take a shot from the nurse "the hard way or the easy way." Opting for the hard way, staffers grabbed, choked and threw him to the ground, slamming his face in the floor.
The report sent shock waves through the Texas Department of Aging and Disabilities. During tough questioning from a state Senate committee last year, DADS commissioner Addie Horn broke down in tears. This was her life's work, she said, and she took great pride in it. The agency did everything it could to identify, prevent and stop abuse, and would continue to do so.
Officials at DADS went on a public relations offensive, asserting that the problems in Lubbock were not occurring elsewhere and that, as the report pointed out, the main problem was funding. But subsequent media reports — in The Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News — revealed that conditions were just as bad, and possibly worse, at other state schools.
Perhaps emboldened by the press reports, employees and family members of residents at the Corpus Christi State School started to come to the offices of state Representatives Solomon Ortiz Jr. and Abel Herrero last fall, telling them their own stories of abuse.
"People would bring pictures — 'Here is my loved one severely bruised. Here is my loved one with a broken arm,'" Ortiz recalls. "And there was no explanation from the school as to how these things had happened."
Then, in May 2007, a resident at Corpus Christi hung herself by her shoelaces, the first suicide at a state school in years. Ortiz says he was told the suicide was due at least in part to staffers who had not made their rounds.
"We started to talk to mid-management-type people, and they started telling us about how understaffed they were, the back-to-back shifts, about the drug use among employees and that they were seeing a new [criminal] element being sent to state schools: people who were found not mentally competent to stand trial."
The Observer's own review of disciplinary records for 11 state schools (Denton and Lubbock were not included because of pending litigation) also supports the view that what happened to Haseeb Chishty was not a unique event. While most of the disciplinary violations the Observer reviewed, for incidents reported from 2002 to 2007, were for minor rules violations and accidents, dozens more raise serious concerns.
There are also disturbing episodes of exploitation, sometimes sexual, and humiliation. Some mirror the environment Miller said existed at Denton State School. At Abilene State School in the spring and summer of 2006, for example, staffers regularly threw balls at residents as they passed by. The same group of employees also forced a resident to sit while one of their co-workers punched him in the arm, chest and stomach. These abuses went on for six months before any staffers were disciplined, even though their supervisor had been aware of the problems for months.
It is hard to reconcile these reports with what one sees touring Denton State School. During a recent visit, the facility appeared clean, the staff cheerful. "It really is a community here," says recently appointed Denton State School superintendent Randy Spence, who has held management positions at other state schools. "I never would have stayed for 29 years in a situation where what's been portrayed in the media is the truth. It's very hard to read things and know they just aren't true."
Still, employees say there are problems that must be addressed. Because starting pay for an entry-level job as a direct-care aide is a relatively low $1,522 a month, roughly $9 an hour, finding applicants with relevant work experience is difficult. The only requirement for the job is a high school diploma.
It is a stressful job, and over the years it has only become more difficult. Thanks to advances in medical science, residents in state care facilities are living longer, which brings a whole set of new problems. "It means more medications, more shots, more room for medical error," one nurse says. The population has also become more dangerous. As Texas has cut overall funding for mental health, state schools have been asked to pick up the slack and have seen a steady increase in the number of residents with the dual diagnosis of mental retardation and mental illness.