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In places such as Corpus Christi and San Angelo, state schools also take court referrals, meaning part of their populations are now accused criminals.
Because of high turnover — 2,138 state school employees quit last year — experienced staff are stretched thin while new workers must manage a situation that is often chaotic and frequently dangerous. As a result, staffers say that accidents happen and occasionally tempers flare. "Most of the people I work with are compassionate and really care about their jobs," another employee says. "But we do have people not cut out for the job, and sometimes bad things happen."
DADS spokesperson Fedorov argues that state schools are open to visitors 24 hours a day, making rampant and systematic abuse nearly impossible. She says that while abuse allegations are high — investigators have confirmed 1,266 instances of abuse systemwide in the last three years — that does not tell the full story. Ninety-one percent of all abuse allegations come back unconfirmed.
The future of state schools now lies in the hands of the state Legislature. Over the past year, a mostly Democratic legislative study group, led by Representatives Ortiz and Herrero of Corpus Christi and Garnet Coleman of Houston, has held hearings in Corpus Christi and Dallas, and plans to hold more. They expect to issue a report in November.
A second legislative committee appointed by House Speaker Tom Craddick has also hosted a hearing in Austin and plans to release a report before the start of the 2009 legislative session. The chairman of this committee, State Representative Larry Phillips from Sherman, believes that reports of abuse and neglect have been exaggerated in the press. What has been lost, he says, is the number of people who are pleased with the facilities.
"You hear from families who say, 'I don't think my loved one would be able to make it if it weren't for state schools,'" Phillips says. "And then you hear from those who say it should all be closed. It's very difficult when you have two sides who are very adamant about things."
As far as community-based facilities are concerned, Phillips says, "There will always be abuse in the alternative as well. You can't say that just doing away with this parameter, you're going to do away with abuse."
Fedorov maintains that when residents capable of existing outside state school facilities request to leave, they are allowed to do so, provided there is space for them in state-run group homes. Since 2005, there has been a steady increase in the number of state school residents transferred to these facilities, from 76 in 2005 to 97 in 2006 to 118 last year. Already this year, 144 state school residents have gone into the community.
But Garrison-Tate says this is far from enough. He points to a July state audit report that said of the 644 residents at state schools who asked to leave in fiscal year 2007, 449 — or 70 percent — were denied. Each state school has an interdisciplinary team — made up of a psychologist, a nurse, a guardian and others — that decides which residents are allowed to leave.
"There's an inherent conflict of interest when the people deciding whether you can leave are those whose livelihood depends on the continued existence of these facilities," Garrison-Tate says. "We would love to see the state close these facilities down, as other states have done, and move to community-based care. That's the trend across the country, but we know it can't happen today, or tomorrow. So what we want to see is a right-sizing. How many of these [schools] do we actually need to have? The people who want to get out should be able to leave, and we shouldn't put any more people in."
So far, the legislative response has been to increase funding for additional employees. In the 2007 session, the Legislature appropriated $49 million for state schools to hire additional employees. While DADS officials say the money has already made a difference, Denton State School employees say they aren't seeing much of a difference. The quality of training is going down, says one staffer, and new workers are often thrown into situations they aren't ready for.
Representative Coleman says things must change. "For too long the answer has been to ignore these problems and to act like they don't exist, and we've done nothing," he says. "Well, doing nothing has got to stop. These are our most vulnerable citizens. It's a measure of our worth as a government, and as a society, how we take care of them."
Just how well the Denton State School takes care of its residents is somewhat obscured by DADS's refusal to provide relevant documents related to the facility, citing pending litigation.
But Chishty says what she has found suggests the school is just as bad as, if not worse than, other facilities in the system. Over the last year, Chishty says she has uncovered several mysterious deaths at the school. One involved Manuel Lopez, a 17-year resident of the school who died in January. His family members told the Observer that they regularly saw bruises on his legs and face. Now they wonder if what they were told was an accident that caused permanent paralysis more than 13 years ago was actually the result of abuse. The family says the state has refused to release an autopsy report, and DADS declined the Observer's request for the same report, citing confidentiality concerns. The Texas State Attorney General is currently reviewing that decision.
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