Saturday, May 30, 2009

Legislation to reform state institutions for people with intellectual disabilities in Texas heads to Governor for his signature

From The AP:

AUSTIN — The Texas Senate on May 29 gave final approval to improving security and oversight of the state’s large institutions for the mentally disabled, which have been hit with allegations of widespread abuse and neglect.

The unanimous vote sends the bill to Gov. Rick Perry, who had declared fixing problems at the 13 state schools, housing nearly 5,000 residents, a top priority of the legislative session.

If the bill is signed into law, the state will install video surveillance cameras in common areas and give new powers to the state office of inspector general to help local prosecutors pursue cases of abuse, neglect or exploitation. Staff would be subject to drug tests and criminal background checks.

Also, state schools would be renamed state supported living centers.

The bill would also create a hot line for reporting abuse, neglect and misconduct.

There have been recent scathing reports of neglect and abuse, including fights between residents staged by workers.

Dozens of people have died under questionable circumstances, and hundreds of employees have been disciplined for mistreating residents. A 2008 review by the federal Department of Justice reported that residents’ civil rights were being violated. Investigations uncovered employees who had criminal records.

"The abuse and neglect that has taken place at our state schools will stop," said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who led the Senate’s reform efforts.

Lawmakers are expected to give final approval to a five-year, $112 million settlement with the federal government to improve conditions and medical care, including hiring more than 1,000 direct care workers and placing monitors in each school.

The agreement resulted from discussions among the Justice Department, Perry’s office, the Texas attorney general and the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services officials.

A Justice Department report presented to Perry in December said residents are often victims of abuse, neglect and inadequate medical treatment. At least 53 residents died within the past year because of lapses in healthcare, the report concluded.

The investigation centered on Aging and Disability Services, which operates 13 large facilities, including one in Denton.

A provision in the state budget would move 500 people out of state schools in the next two years to community-based care and identify more than 1,000 others who could be better served in other facilities. It would also create more community-based slots for care.

The bill passed Friday also strengthens oversight over those community care facilities, said Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, who sponsored the bill in the House.

For example, those homes will no longer be allowed to investigate claims of abuse and neglect at their facilities, Rose said. That job now reverts to the state.

Community homes will also be subject to unannounced inspections by the state Department of Family and Protective Services.

Lawmakers agreed to give the state new powers to investigate abuse claims at community homes and to create a database of abuse cases that the public can review.

Some advocates for the disabled had called for closing state schools or ending admissions, two ideas that ran into fierce resistance from some families of residents.

Jeff Garrison-Tate of the advocacy group Community Now said the state schools system is beyond repair. "These facilities have created an environment and culture that breeds abuse and neglect," Garrison-Tate said. "It is past time for Texas to develop a plan to get people out of these places."

Nelson is confident that the bill will lead to major improvements.

"This legislation will see to it that our state school residents receive proper care from staff who are better trained. It also establishes an independent oversight structure and calls for the use of video surveillance to serve as a strong deterrent against abuse or neglect," Nelson said recently when the bill cleared the Senate.

"This vulnerable population deserves the best possible care and our protection from harm."