A recommendation to close nearly half of the institutions home to 3,600 Texans with disabilities has renewed focus on the Denton State Supported Living Center, which could be affected if state leaders ultimately agree to close some of the facilities.
In its report on the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, the Sunset Advisory Commission has recommended that Texas close its troubled living center in Austin and appoint an independent commission to determine which five of the remaining 12 centers should also be closed. The commission’s recommendations were released just prior to the final federal monitoring report of the centers, which is expected to be filed later this month.
In 2008, federal investigators found abuse, neglect and exploitation at Texas state schools, as the state supported living centers were then called. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state under civil rights statutes. After news reports of a “fight club” at the Corpus Christi facility emerged, Texas officials agreed in a settlement to meet 171 standards of care for residents. Federal monitors have visited all 13 centers every six months since then, writing up their findings for a federal judge supervising the settlement.
Denton’s center is home to about 400 people with disabilities and the employer of more than 1,600 people. About 100 positions were vacant as of the beginning of May, according to department spokeswoman Cecilia Cavuto.
The news of the recommended closures drew mixed reactions from those who care about people with disabilities, both those living in the facilities and in the community.
Stephen Gersuck, head of the Volunteer Services Council for the Denton State Supported Living Center and whose son lives in the facility, said he participated in a conference call not long after the recommendations came out.
“Everybody on that call who had a son, or daughter, or sibling, in the centers was rabidly opposed to them being in the community,” Gersuck said, adding that, because the centers have medical care, educational and recreational opportunities on site, “they lead a much fuller life in the state supported living center.”
Gersuck said he is offended by suggestions of some activists that the cost of his son’s care comes at the expense of others.
“This is Texas. We used to be bigger than that,” Gersuck said.
Gersuck doesn’t believe allegations of abuse are limited to the centers. He is concerned that it will be more difficult to root out abuse in community settings. His son came to live in Denton’s center after he was removed from a group home. There, his son had been beaten with a toilet plunger by a caregiver, Gersuck said.
From June 2012 to June 2013, Denton’s center had confirmed eight cases of abuse and neglect, compared to 20 cases the year before. Denton was among the handful of state centers that demonstrated progress during the past five years of federal monitoring, although it achieved compliance with just one-third of the 171 standards during that time period.
An independent commission evaluating the issue would likely be given some criteria to work with, should the Texas Legislature accept the sunset recommendation, according to Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans With Disabilities.
He said he believed that the federal monitoring reports would likely weigh heavily in that determination, since they were both long-term and independent. In that case, centers that made little to no progress in the past five years may likely be among those that are closed.
Moreover, the centers in Denton and Brenham may benefit from the political largesse of state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, whose committee work keeps them close to the issue, he said.
After the sunset commission, which Nelson chairs, released its report, the senator released a prepared statement.
“The findings in this report are issues the Legislature has grappled with for some time, and I am certain we are going to receive extensive comment from the public about how to proceed,” Nelson wrote.
Borel’s group advocates for self-determination. If someone with a disability wants to live in the community, they should be provided the supports to do so, he said. If that person — or their caregivers, if they aren’t able to make that determination for themselves — wants to live in an institutional setting, that should be provided, too.
However, caregivers may not be able to expect to have an institution nearby, Borel said. The average monthly cost of maintaining 13 institutions statewide comes to more than $15 million. That figure is expected to reach $17 million per month next year, even as the resident population continues to drop. By 2015, officials expect that fewer than 3,200 Texans will be living in the centers.
The cost has risen to about $250,000 per person per year, Borel said.
Joe Tate, a policy specialist for Austin-based Community Now, a nonprofit group that promotes inclusive communities, said Texas cannot make the big changes needed in its services to people with disabilities without closing centers. More than 120,000 Texans with disabilities who aren’t living in the centers can wait 10 years or more for access to state programs, Tate said.
“We are so far behind creating capacity in the community,” Tate said.
The only way the state can make the needed changes, he said, is to pivot away from pouring money into the centers, many of which have aging campuses, and start investing in community programs that can help make the transition.
Recent reforms by the Texas Legislature to the state’s Medicaid waiver programs were meant to address the long waiting list. But when the Texas Senate drafted the reforms, it left the budget for the state supported living centers untouched.
The closures are expected to initially save the state some money, particularly when and where officials are able to sell the properties. But the sunset commission also cautioned that the state will need to make other investments in order to begin closing the gap for people with disabilities.
The Department of Aging and Disability Services is expected to release a written response to the sunset report on June 6, Cavuto said.
Public hearings on the proposal to close the six centers will be held in Austin on June 24-25. For more information on participating, including sending comments in advance of the hearings, visit the commission’s website at www.sunset.texas.gov/meetings.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.