More Firings and Suspensions at Texas Homes for Mentally Disabled

Photo: Residents of Texas state school for the mentally disabled were forced to be part of a brutal fight club?

A recent Texas state report revealed nearly 270 employees across the state's 13 residential facilities for the mentally disabled were fired or suspended last year for abusing or mistreating residents. The report comes on the heels of several incidents across the schools that have raised great concern; including ones recently reported by ABC News regarding the 'fight club' incident at the Corpus Christi state school and the suicide of a 15 year-old female at the San Angelo state school.

The 268 employees, highlighted in the report released Friday, were fired or suspended for neglect, physical or sexual abuse to residents in their care. Eleven of the individuals listed on the report were charged with causing severe physical injury to or sexually abusing a resident.

Recently, six employees at the Corpus Christi state school were fired after video surfaced showing the employee forcing mentally disabled residents of the school to fight one another. The employees used their cell phones to videotape the brawls. Five of the former employees were charged with four counts each of causing injury to disabled persons. A sixth person was charged with failing to intervene. They all pled not guilty last month and are schedule to go to trial in July and August.

The Department of Aging and Disabilities Services (DADS), which oversees Texas' 13 state schools and their nearly 5,000 residents, and employs more than 12,000 full-time workers, believes the increased number of firings and suspensions could be interpreted as a sign they're doing their job.

"We don't tolerate abuse and neglect of the residents in our institutions," says Cecilia Fedorov, spokeswoman for the DADS. "We have a zero tolerance policy that says if you are involved in any confirmed case of abuse or neglect that results in any measure of physical harm, that you will be fired."

Fedorov said when DADS instituted their zero tolerance policy in late 2007, they expected the number of firings and dismissals to increase.

"We make no apologies for having tough personnel policies," said Fedorov.

High Rate of Employee Turnover

But critics insist DADS personnel and hiring policies aren't tough enough and the numbers may not be a good sign.

"The State has known it's had a staffing problem for years," said Beth Mitchell, Senior Managing Attorney of Advocacy Inc, an organization that works to protect the rights of Texans with disabilities. "It comes down to not having enough well trained and educated employees; these are individuals who are given limited training and are being required to work long, overtime hours with a population that needs a lot of special care and treatment."

Mitchell insists the high rate of employee turnover in the school system often leads to fewer employees to care for residents which increases the likelihood of neglect and abuse.

While DADS has acknowledged the breakdowns in the state school system, in an earlier statement, the agency said, "We've strengthened training of direct care workers, and added hundreds of staff across the state, including a myriad of programmatic changes throughout all services delivered in the schools that work toward achieving best practices. Care for those in the state schools is continually improving."

The number of state school employees who have been fired or suspended over the past five years has increased; 180 in FY 2004; 203 in FY 2005; 200 in FY 06; and 239 in FY 07

Last Thursday, Governor Rick Perry signed emergency legislation that would invest $48 million dollars over two years into improving oversight and safety at state facilities and community homes that service Texans with varying degrees of mental disabilities.

"Whether these folks live in our state facilities or in therapeutic community settings, we're all obligated to show that basic human decency for those individuals so that they can live and learn and grow," said Perry prior to signing the bill. "Our current system had some serious shortcomings."

The bill calls for independent monitors and enhanced services to meet the medical and psychological needs of state school residents. It also establishes an Office of Independent Ombudsman; requires video surveillance cameras in all common areas to prevent, deter and detect abuse and neglect; requires FBI fingerprint background checks and random drug testing on employees; and increases penalties for employees who abuse or neglect residents, or fail to report abuse or neglect.

Late last month the State of Texas reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to spend $112 million over the next five years to improve the state schools after a December 2008 DOJ report noted widespread mistreatment of the mentally disabled residents in the Texas State school system.

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