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."
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.