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Disabling Reforms at State Institutions

Budget cuts to state-supported living centers could lead to federal lawsuit.
by Published on
photo by Daniel Carter
2008 resident Jolyn LIlleberg in her dorm at the state-supported living center in Austin.

In 2009, Gov. Rick Perry declared Texas’ troubled institutions for people with mental disabilities an “emergency item” for the Legislature.

Now, just two years later, the facilities are facing massive budget cuts that not only could cause increased abuse, but also lead the U.S. Department of Justice to sue the state in federal court, state officials acknowledged to the Observer on Wednesday.

The facilities—known as state-supported living centers—house more than 4,000 Texans with mental retardation in 13 institutions statewide. They were the subject of damning investigations of abuse that led to Gov. Perry’s emergency order and spurred state officials to sign a 2009 agreement with the Justice Department in which they pledged to improve conditions.

But looming budget cuts threaten to undo the reforms. The 2012-2013 state budget plan that the Texas House will begin debating on Friday cuts funding for state supported living centers by more than $212 million—or 16 percent.

It has been widely reported that state lawmakers are considering closing one state-supported living center. But the closure will save only $10 million in 2012-2013, according to the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS), the state agency that runs the facilities.

That means the agency would have to slice another $200 million from the remaining 12 facilities. DADS officials told the Observer on Wednesday that a $200-million cut would cause the agency to default on its settlement with the Justice Department.

“We wouldn’t be able to meet the terms of the DOJ settlement with a proposed reduction of that size,” DADS spokesperson Allison Lowery wrote the Observer in an emailed response to questions about the agency budget. “[B]ut we’re continuing to work with lawmakers on this issue in what remains a very fluid budget process.”

As recently as two years ago, conditions in some state-supported living centers were so deplorable that the Justice Department ruled they violated patients’ constitutional rights. The Justice Department began investigating the facilities—then known as state schools—in 2006. The feds released their full report on the system in late 2008, concluding that Texans with mental retardation routinely received poor medical care, were physically abused and sexually assaulted.

In a 2008 investigation, the Observer found shocking incidents of abuse, including one staffer who repeatedly smashed a patient’s head against a metal door. We also found that the facilities were grossly underfunded, with direct care staffers earning fast-food wages and annual turnover rates of 70 percent.

In one infamous incident from 2009, staffers at the Corpus Christi facility forced residents to attack each other and then filmed their own “fight club” video. 

As lawmakers debated how to reform the facilities in 2009, the Justice Department was threatening to sue Texas. To avoid a federal lawsuit, state officials signed a detailed agreement with the Justice Department in which the state promised to hire more staff, limit abuse and neglect, and improve access to medical care. The Legislature did increase funding for state-supported living centers by 12 percent during the 2007 and 2009 sessions, including hiring 3,000 more employees.

But the state can’t backslide. The Justice Department agreement, which runs through 2014, obligates DADS to maintain good conditions or face a lawsuit.

The agreement set up monitoring teams that regularly inspect state-supported living centers. While conditions in the facilities have improved, the most recent reports—from Corpus Christi and El Paso—give the facilities failing grades in a number of key areas.

Despite the deficiencies, direct care staff in state-supported living centers—and the monitoring teams—have reported many improvements within the facilities.

All that progress may soon be undone.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.