Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Texas legislature hits roadblock in closing state institutions

From the Dallas Morning News:

AUSTIN – Efforts to start consolidating state schools for the mentally disabled in favor of community-based services crumbled April 28 as lawmakers in both chambers agreed they would be unable to pass such sweeping legislation.

Though House and Senate committees moved forward with a bill to dramatically reduce waiting lists for services in the community and to let people with disabilities choose how they receive care, the measure was stripped of anything contentious.

All references to state school closure or consolidation were removed, as was a provision that would have ended state school admissions of people under 22. Downsizing private institutions for the disabled is also off the table.

The reform legislation follows a U.S. Department of Justice report last year that found abuse, neglect and widespread civil rights violations inside Texas' 13 institutions for the disabled. In February, allegations that employees at the Corpus Christi State School forced residents into a late-night "fight club" added fuel to the fire to downsize the state schools.

Advocates for the disabled have argued that the state schools are dangerous and inefficient, and that community care is safer and more cost-effective. Longtime state school families have fought back, saying community care is unregulated and unsafe, and that many people have disabilities too profound to live at home or in group homes.

Lawmakers who support closing some state schools could still try to add amendments to the reform bill, which calls for a strategic plan for state disability services that cuts the wait time for community-based care down to two years. But they say opposition from their colleagues with state schools in their districts is so intense that anything that hints of a downsizing is unlikely to pass.

"There will be no change from the status quo," said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. "We continue to understaff and underfund this system. We need real reform from statewide leaders... and that has not happened."

Opponents of closure or consolidation say the current reform bill, plus a state school safety bill that has passed the Senate and is awaiting a vote in the House; do enough to address problems in the care system. They say the state schools are effective and serve an important purpose, and that closing any of them would be disastrous.

"The problems – and there have been problems – are being corrected," said Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, who has a state school and community group
homes in his district.

Though the movement to close or consolidate state schools started in the House, the Senate has seemed more receptive.

On Tuesday, after endorsing the "reform-lite" state school plan, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee added a disability services advisory board to the bill. The board could eventually consider consolidation issues.