Monday, August 31, 2009

State institution in Lubbock, Texas, faces rocky road to improving

The intro to a long feature in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal:

The last people to see Michael Ray Nicholson alive recounted a brutal scene.

Nicholson, who family say had the mental capacity of a 2-year-old, was slammed on the bed, laid on and choked with a towel.

His face turned blue. Others watched, but did nothing.

Then, the man, just a teenager when he first came to the Lubbock State School, died.

Reports obtained by The Avalanche-Journal show school staff told state investigators about the June 6 altercation between employee Donnell Smith and 45-year-old Nicholson.

The death, recently ruled a homicide, occurred more than four years after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation uncovered the school's failure to prevent abuse and neglect of the severely mentally disabled residents in its care. Particularly troubling, the report noted, was the death of 17 residents in an 18-month period, several of which were identified as potentially preventable.

The Texas Legislature, concerned about safety through the entire state school system, has allowed the schools to hire more staff, and Lubbock's school is trying to fill more than 100 new positions.

Even before that, state and school officials say they improved how they care for their mentally disabled residents.

In 2006, the year after the Justice Department investigation, the number of abuse and neglect cases dropped.

But public records obtained by The Avalanche-Journal through the Texas Public Information Act show the number of cases in 2007 and 2008 dramatically increased.

The school has fired 73 employees in four years, but as of yet, none have faced criminal charges.

Criminal action is needed to stop the abuse and neglect, said Lilly Nicholson, Michael's mother.

"The state schools can only turn over the information of abuse and neglect to law enforcement and fire the people responsible, they can not do more than that," she said.

"If the people working there are aware that there will be consequences, they will not be as likely to assault, injure or neglect the ones they are hired to care for. It's a disgrace that this is allowed to continue with no accounting."