Russell Lee photo of state institution circa 1960. Things haven’t changed much. Will it really change? By Richard Halpin Austin Administrators of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation profess to be ready to make some real changes, but are they really? In the last year, the department has been under unprecedented pressure from the Legislature, the press, the courts, and citizen groups to drastically improve. the institutional care in this state. The department has been charged with gross negligence resulting in patients’ deaths, of using patients as “human guinea pigs,” of requiring patients to do peonage service, and of doing no more than “warehousing” citizens that no one else wants to cope with. The department’s budget is small, the buildings are old, and the direct care staff is about half what it should be, critics have charged. NOW MHMR has a new commissioner, Dr. Kenneth Gayer, recently imported from Ohio. He is facing a class action suit concerning patients’ right to Halpin is an organizer for Free the Slow, Inc. education, treatment, and rehabilitation. The suit also charges the department with cruel and unusual punishment. There is another suit filed by employees accusing certain administrators of falsifying records concerning rehabilitative treatment. There are almost daily challenges to the department’s commitment procedures, there’s an escalated employee turnover rate, and growing horror and dissatisfaction among attendants at the state schools and hospitals. Dr. Gayer has the reputation of a liberal administrator. The mere fact that he was hired was interpreted by some observers to mean that MHMR was about to take a new approach to treating the mentally disturbed and retarded, an approach that would return patients to their communities for treatment rather than stashing them in large, centralized institutions. An important but long ignored report commissioned by the Austin Urban Renewal Agency studies the effects of placing people in institutions.* It details how elderly people taken out of their personally constructed and supportive environments and placed in nursing homes simply die. They just get lonely and die. *The Blackshear Diagnostic Survey; A Description and Problem Analysis, by J. Allen Williams, Jr., assistant professor of sociology, UT Austin, June, 1968. Critics of MHMR maintain that the same thing happens in state institutions. That’s why such groups as Free the Slow want to move MHMR services back to the community. Dr. Gayer talks a good “community” line. In a recent interview, he agreed that there are probably people locked up in Texas institutions who shouldn’t be there. And he agreed that some MHMR residents who work at the institutions could just as well work in the community. Still, he insists, Texas must expect “an increase in children who need to be institutionalized for psychiatric problems.” Some people believe that the answer to MHMR’s problems is a lot more money. Others, like the leaders of Free the Slow, maintain that the department is adequately. funded but that the money isn’t used properly. At any rate, the agency’s priorities are established in the budget, and so I attended a budget hearing a few weeks ago to see what kind of shifts in priorities are being made. But it seemed to me that Dr. Gayer was riding the same old priorities established by the deposed Dr. David Wade. The Legislative Budget Board and the Governor’s Budget Office began holding meetings concerning the budgets for Oct. 20, 1974 7
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