The State of Texas has reached an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to spend $112 million over the next 5 year to improve the state's 13 residential facilities for the mentally disabled. The agreement seeks to address complaints and concerns held by state leaders, families and advocacy groups over incidents that have taken place at the schools; including ones recently reported by ABC News including a 'fight club' allegedly run by employees of a Texas state school who forced mentally disabled residents to brawl and another case in which a 15 year-old resident of another Texas school committed suicide.
"The settlement brings much-needed closure to a sad chapter in our state's history,' said State Senator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. "Abuse and neglect of our most vulnerable citizens must never be tolerated."
In a letter to Nelson on Wednesday, David Morales, Texas' deputy attorney general for civil litigation, wrote that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had approved the state-wide settlement agreement.
According to Rep. Nelson who chairs the Senate Health & Human Services Committee, the agreement includes: independent monitors to inspect state schools on a regular basis, new standards for the level of medical and psychological care residents should receive, enhanced oversight to detect and deter exploitation, and clear guidelines for employees designed to reduce the residents' risk of harm.
Representative Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, has long been a vocal advocate for state school reform. He says if the state upholds its obligations the new agreement could be more than just a formality but a great benefits to residents of the state schools.
"It is frustrating that it has taken a DOJ settlement agreement for the state of Texas to realize that it needed to do more in protecting the civil rights of our most vulnerable population," said Herrero. "Although I am hopeful the agreement will bring additional needed reform measures and further light on these critical issues, we must all maintain a watchful eye in ensuring the state fulfills its legal, moral and ethical obligation in caring for our most vulnerable population."
Abuse and Neglect in Texas State Schools
The Texas State Schools have been under attack for several years due to the staggering number of confirmed abuse and neglect cases that have been reported across all of its schools. Dozens of mentally disabled residents have died under questionable situations and hundreds of employees have been disciplined for neglecting or abusing residents in the state schools according to the DOJ report and state agency reports.
The agreement is a result of a series of investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice that noted widespread mistreatment of the mentally disabled residents in the school. A December 2008 report from the DOJ "…concluded that numerous conditions and practices at the Facilities violate the constitutional and federal statutory rights of their residents." The report went on to say the schools did not provide adequate protection from harm, mental health services and health care.
The Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) is responsible for overseeing Texas' 13 states schools and its nearly 5000 residents.
In a written response to the agreement, DADS said the new direction allows it to continue with a clear action plan for ensuring the safety and well-being of the vulnerable Texans in its care.
"It is important to know that we have not been waiting on an agreement to start making changes," said Cecilia Fedorov, press officer for the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. "We initiated improvements to our state schools before the Department of Justice's first visit to our state, and we continue to make additional significant improvements."
DADS said it will hire 1,160 additional staff for the 13 facilities, including 27 psychiatrists, 11 clinical pharmacists and eight dentists to meet the standards of care outlined in the agreement.
But many are still not confident this new agreement will go far enough in improving the troubled state school system.
"They've already dumped lots of money into the system and nothing has really improved," said Beth Mitchell, Senior Managing Attorney of Advocacy Inc., an organization that works to protect the rights of Texans with disabilities. "It's sad that we may end up spending a significant amount of money and not see a significant improvement to the system."
Alternative Approach to Institutionalization
Mitchell said she hopes the agreement includes alternative approaches to the large institutional settings.
"Some of the money needs to go toward closing and consolidating the schools along with moving individuals into a community setting to ensure better and more appropriate care," said Mitchell.
Senate Bill 643 introduced by Rep. Jane Nelson, passed the Texas House yesterday and is returning to the Senate with amendments. The bill establishes an Office of Independent Ombudsman to audit the state schools biannually and be a confidential liaison for parents, clients and guardians.
The bill also created a toll-free hotline to report abuse, neglect and misconduct; requires video camera surveillance in common areas of each state school; require DADS to perform drug tests, fingerprinting and background checks of state school employees.
The approval of the agreement by the attorney general is only the first part of the process. The Texas Legislature must now pass a resolution in support of the agreement with the Department of Justice before it becomes final.