State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has announced that Sunset Advisory Commission members will revisit a controversial recommendation that the state close six of its 13 residential centers for people with disabilities.
Nelson’s announcement, apparently a response to public concern, came near the end of almost 27 hours of testimony during public hearings in Austin on Tuesday and Wednesday. Testimony centered around reform proposals for several state health and human services agencies, including the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.
The aging and disability services agency runs 13 campuses for developmentally disabled people across the state.
The Denton center is one of the largest employers in the county and houses 461 residents. More than 1,600 workers take care of them.
Last month, the Sunset commission recommended a number of reforms, including the closure of the Austin State Supported Living Center and five other centers around the state. The Austin center has announced it will close some of its units and begin moving residents into group homes or apartments. Other residents might be transferred to other living centers.
Nelson, who heads the commission, told the crowd Wednesday night that it’s important to craft a coordinated approach to the issue of closing centers.
“We need a plan that recognizes the value of our state supported living centers and respects individual choice, but addresses the very real challenges that we face with quality of care, aging infrastructure and growing cost,” Nelson said.
Advocates for the Denton State Supported Living Center waited until late Wednesday to offer their perspective.
Stacey Mayfield told the commission that her son, Andrew, was exceptionally well cared for in Denton. She was concerned that, while every state supported living center was inspected, every group home was not.
Instead, inspectors visit a sample of homes run by companies that are not required to install video monitoring or meet other standard-of-care requirements that the state-run living centers must meet.
“Unless you are prepared to move legislatively to ensure the same high standards my son enjoys at Denton State Supported Living Center [are adopted] for those in group homes, it would not be a smart decision to tear down and then rebuild what you already have now,” Mayfield told commission members. “This is not brick and mortar. This is a high standard of care that is accountable.”
In 2008, federal investigators found abuse, neglect and exploitation at Texas state schools, as the centers were then called. The U.S. Department of Justice sued Texas for civil rights violations. After news reports of a “fight club” emerged from the center in Corpus Christi, Texas officials settled with the department, agreeing to meet 171 standards of care for residents. Independent monitors have visited all 13 centers every six months since then, evaluating the centers against those standards and writing up their findings for a federal judge supervising the settlement.
Denton’s center was the second-best in showing improvement during federal monitoring over the past several years. However, since federal monitoring began, the cost of maintaining the centers has risen sharply.
The centers serve an estimated 4,000 residents, but 120,000 others remain on a waiting list. Sometimes, they can wait for 10 years or more to join other programs that enhance their lives in their community. Rising costs for institutional care have fostered a perception that the centers’ services come at the expense of the disabled living in community settings.
Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, will lead the new work group. It also includes Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury; Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Garland; Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock; Rep. Richard Pena Raymond, D-Laredo; and Dallas attorney Tom Luce, one of two public members of the 12-member Sunset commission.
The group will not meet publicly, but would present a modified proposal for the centers when the commission meets again in August for its final recommendations, which the Legislature could write into a bill next year.
“We are very sensitive to what we’ve been hearing so far,” Nelson said.
The Sunset commission is still accepting comments on its recommendations for the living centers and other reforms to the state’s health and human service agencies.
To read the reports and comment, visit the commission’s website at www.sunset.texas.gov.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.