By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
By Sean Pendergast
Farhat Chishty pushes her son's wheelchair into the shade of an oak tree and sits down with a sigh. It's a calm spring morning at Denton State School, the largest institution for people with mental retardation in Texas, and she has come for her morning visit. She puts a knit cap on her son's head and adjusts a blanket over his bony knees. A gentle gust of wind blows across campus.
Spread out over 200 acres of wooded, rolling hills, the school has the bucolic feel of a summer camp. It has been described as a place of systematic abuse and torture — an Abu Ghraib for the retarded — but it hardly seems that way this morning. Not far from the park bench where she sits, a man in a wheelchair is motoring around the leafy campus, headed perhaps to the chapel or the Wooden Nickel restaurant to get an ice cream cone. This is a school in name only. The median age of its 630 residents is 49. The only thing they have in common is the need for around-the-clock supervision. Some have Down syndrome, some are autistic and some lack the ability to walk or talk. Chishty's son falls in the last category.
Every day she comes here to be with him — to wash his wiry hair and clip his yellowed nails and rub his calloused feet. The boy has no control over his body. His head rolls from side to side, his eyes dart from one thing to another and drool pools out of his mouth. His name is Haseeb, and he is 34.
He wasn't always like this. For most of his life, he has been profoundly mentally retarded, but there was a time when he could sing and dance and communicate with his mother, in broken English and Urdu. There was a time when he ate cheeseburgers with his family and bopped his head to his brother's hip-hop. And then something happened.
Six years ago, not far from where Chishty sits, a nurse's aide found Haseeb in bed, soaking in his own blood and urine. No one at the school could explain what happened. For six months he lay in intensive care, suffering from massive internal injuries that triggered toxic shock and then paralysis. His mother insisted someone at the school was to blame — she had seen a bruise in the shape of a footprint near his groin on the morning they found him. But no one had reported any abuse, so her claims went ignored.
For two and a half years, she told this story to anyone who would listen, and then the unexpected happened. Kevin Miller, a former caregiver at the school, admitted he had abused Haseeb in a drug-induced rage, punching and kicking him more than a dozen times. He said his supervisors knew about the attack and helped him cover it up. Even more alarming, he said abuse at the school was rampant. He knew his confession, which he first offered at a drug rehab clinic in Houston, might send him to prison, but he felt it was worth the risk if it sparked reforms.
More than three years have passed since then, and none of the changes Miller envisioned have taken place. Yet largely thanks to Chishty's efforts, her son has become the face of a movement. For the first time in nearly a decade, advocacy groups for the mentally retarded are pushing for the closure of the 13 state schools in Texas. These facilities, which house nearly 5,000 people, represent the largest institutionalization of mentally retarded in the nation. The alternatives — smaller, community-based group homes — are cheaper, safer and more humane, mental health rights advocates say. The trend across the country is toward this model of care, and other states, including California and New York, have either shuttered their institutions or are in the process of doing so.
Jeff Garrison-Tate, who heads Community Now, an Austin-based advocacy group, cites the Chishty tragedy as a defining example of why Texas should close all its state schools. "Haseeb is the tip of the iceberg," he says. "By their very nature, these are places where abuse is rife to occur."
While officials with the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services — the state agency charged with overseeing state schools — say Haseeb's case represents an isolated incident, the agency's own records paint a different picture. In April, the Associated Press reported that in the last three years, more than 800 state school employees have been fired for causing serious injury to residents. That followed a July 2007 review of records by The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle that found disturbing cases of abuse and neglect statewide. Most devastating, however, was an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, which in 2006 documented neglect, cover-up and 17 deaths in 18 months at the Lubbock State School.
A review by the Dallas Observer, a sister paper of the Houston Press, of more than 800 pages of disciplinary records covering 11 state schools over the last five years reveals a widespread pattern of abuse and neglect throughout the system. These records are littered with incidents of staffers choking, punching and whipping clients. They also indicate that staffers often say injuries to residents, which they caused, were self-inflicted or the result of accidents; threats and intimidation of residents were tactics regularly employed by staff to ensure their abuse went unreported.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
While Chishty refuses to reveal what role she has played in the pending U.S. Justice Department investigation of the school, she had advance knowledge of the arrival of federal investigators at the school and the resignations within the last year of the superintendent of the school, its director of nursing and its director of incident investigations. One Denton State School employee who spoke to the Observer on condition of anonymity blamed the federal investigation on Chishty. The employee also said abuse allegations at the school have dramatically spiked over the past two years.
For Chishty, this is good news. "It means somebody is getting the message. They know I am there and that I am watching."
She knows the answers now. For so long, they told her she was crazy, that what she said happened to her boy couldn't be true. And then they found the man who did it, and he confessed and is in prison. Everything that has come out since has only confirmed what she has always believed.
The prison is in the middle of nowhere, at a far west corner of the state in Fort Stockton. It is a bleak and foreboding place — a cluster of tan buildings surrounded by razor wire — and on hot days it bakes in the sun. It's the perfect spot to shelve a man the state would just as soon forget about.
In July, Kevin Miller agreed to a visit with the Observer, saying he was ready to talk again. He knew the school, despite his confession, had never taken responsibility for its role in the matter.
He wanted to talk, he said so in a letter, but what difference would it make? After all he had said, so little had been done. He'd gained nothing by confessing, other than to give the Chishty family some semblance of justice, and they still wanted him dead. And so, not long ago, weighed down by what he had done, he tried to kill himself. It was his second attempt.
There was so much about him he wanted people to know — the abuse he had suffered as a child, his habitual bouts with drug addiction, his bipolar disorder. Not that any of that was an excuse for what he had done.
"The above is not intended to put the blame on others and somehow reduce mine," he wrote. "I just feel now that it would have never happened if there weren't a hostile work environment, chronic drug abuse and a system of abuse of residents already in place."
Chishty says she knows all this, has known it for years, but it's still good to hear again, to revalidate what she's been fighting for. Because he is now a danger to himself, Miller has been transferred to a mental health unit. Both he and her son have become victims of the same act, and now both reside in institutions for the mentally challenged. In October, the state agreed to let Haseeb come home and to provide a nursing assistant to help Chishty with his care. She says she expects Haseeb to be home within a month or two, but considering the history of her battle with the state, she wouldn't be surprised if it takes longer.
Back on the grounds of Denton State School, she pushes her son in his heavy wheelchair, as she does most days. They cross the grass that leads to the edge of the campus and stop under a grove of trees. Off in the distance, at the top of a small hill, is the cemetery, surrounded by a white picket fence. Every year, the residents of this school who have no family end up there. The school will not say how many they bury, but she knows that last winter 11 died in one month alone. She thinks of the many residents who have no family, and she says a silent prayer for them.
"Whatever happens, I will keep fighting," she says. "Not just for Haseeb, but for the other people here. I have to make sure what happens to him never happens again."