Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Senate panel approves bill for greater oversight of state schools

Senate panel approves bill for greater oversight of state schools
Parent tells state senators about teen with mental disabilities who was abused by staff.

By Jim Vertuno
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Karen Yeaman's autistic teenage son lived in the Austin State School for six months. That was long enough for her to see things that she didn't like and hear stories from parents worried that their children had been abused or neglected by staff in Texas' large homes for people with mental disabilities.

"You're treating them like dirt," Yeaman told state senators Tuesday, relaying stories of one teenager whose parents said he was yelled and screamed at and was smacked on the head.

Texas lawmakers are considering several bills to fix a system racked by reports of abuse and neglect. A federal Department of Justice report released in December found 53 deaths from preventable conditions in the past year.

On Tuesday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee passed a bill to create greater oversight, better investigations and training and deeper background checks into staff.

Texas houses nearly 5,000 residents with mental disabilities in facilities known as state schools, and Gov. Rick Perry has declared the need to fix the problems a legislative emergency.

"They need our protection, our oversight and our compassion," said Sen. Jane Nelson, the Flower Mound Republican who chairs the committee and sponsored the bill.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for debate. It does not include a moratorium on admissions, a call to close any state schools or bans on the use of restraints, which some advocates for the disabled have sought. Some of those issues are in other bills.

"This bill is a good start," said Garth Corbett, an attorney for Advocacy Inc., a group that has pushed to drastically reform the state schools. "It doesn't go far enough."

With the most explosive issues left out of Nelson's bill, Tuesday's testimony didn't touch on the abuses detailed in the federal report.

Though some families said their loved ones were treated well, Yeaman described an atmosphere of intimidation for a young man who was subjected to cursing, threats and theft. She said the boy's parents asked her to tell lawmakers about their son.

She said that the parents told her that staff routinely cursed and screamed at their son to get up in the mornings, threatened to flip his mattress if he moved slowly and flicked him on the head. Yeaman's son now lives in a smaller community home.

Adelaide Horn, commissioner of the Department of Aging and Disability Services, told lawmakers the agency has a "no tolerance" policy when it comes to confirmed cases of abuse.

"I would consider it abuse if they said 'shut up,' " Horn said.

Susan Payne, vice president of the Parent Association for the Retarded of Texas Inc. and a defender of the state schools, said families welcome the bill's safeguards.

Her 47-year-old sister lives in the Denton State School, and she thinks most residents are treated well. Additional training will help, but even that might not be enough, she said.

"I'm not sure any amount of training can prepare people for the type of work they will be doing," Payne said.

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