Following yesterday’s disturbing story alleging that as many as eleven employees of the Corpus Christi State School for the developmentally disabled forced residents to participate in a “fight club,” many in Texas are wondering how this has been allowed to happen. But this latest horror story is only one in a long series of alarm bells which have been ringing since 2005 when the Department of Justice began its first in a series of investigations into alleged abuse and neglect in our state schools, culminating in the latest report issued on December 3, 2008. Why has this problem not been addressed sooner? In January, following the Department of Justice report, Governor Perry’s office issued the following statement, “There's still some investigating to do to find out whether this is a systemic problem. What I don't want to see happen is a knee-jerk reaction to an isolated situation.’” (“Perry: Kimbrough will investigate state schools,” Dallas Morning News’ “Trail Blazers” Blog, 1/14/09.)
Concern over standards of care in Texas State Schools came to light in the summer of 2005 when the DOJ began their investigation of the Lubbock State School. During the DOJ investigation from June of 2005 through December of 2006, 17 people at the school died. Investigators wrote in a report to Gov. Rick Perry in December of ’06 that the Lubbock State School “substantially departs from accepted professional standards of care.” It also stated, “It fails to provide adequate health care and protect residents from harm, due in part to staffing shortages.” (Corrie Maclaggan, “Deaths Spur Calls To Close Lubbock State School,” Austin American-Statesman, 2/19/07).
Last summer the DOJ launched its investigation into allegations of abuse at the Denton State School, and soon thereafter expanded their review to include 11 state schools in Texas and two smaller state facilities. According to the investigative report, at least 114 Denton State School residents died from September 2007 through September 2008. Throughout Texas, over 50 residents died from preventable causes in 2008. Each report cites a lack of adequate standard of care, lack of oversight, and dangerous conditions for residents.
On February 3, two months after the report from the Department of Justice, Governor Perry declared a legislative emergency for the protection of mentally disabled residents at the Texas State Schools. On Monday, March 9, the State Senate passed a bill which would appoint an ombudsman to oversee and audit the state schools and investigate injuries and deaths. The bill also provides for installation of video cameras in the schools, and background checks, drug screenings and fingerprinting of employees. For those who have died in the state's care, this measure is too little, too late. The question is: What took so long? Where was Governor Perry during the last four years of DOJ investigations? The measures passed this week in the Senate are long overdue. The recent sexual abuse scandal involving the Texas Youth Commission and the embarrassing conditions in our state schools are unacceptable. Is this the best that Texans can expect from our state government?