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Bills lay out how to close centers

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

State legislation addresses Texas’ 13 facilities for disabled

A pair of bills filed Friday with the Texas Legislature would give the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services the authority to close or consolidate any of its 13 state-supported living centers.

The authority to close any of the 13 centers, previously known as state schools, currently lies with the Legislature. Some advocates have long urged closing the centers, home to about 4,000 Texans with disabilities. Currently, all of the centers are being monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice. None have achieved substantial compliance with standards of care stemming from a 2009 federal lawsuit.

On Friday, state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, filed Senate Bill 1766, which lays out the criteria and requirements for closure or consolidation. In the Texas House, Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, filed House Bill 3527 with the same caption.

Advocates had been expecting the bill, although they weren’t quite sure what form the proposed legislation would take, according to Joe Tate of Community Now!, a nonprofit advocacy group.

He said he would need more time to study the legislation before the group could take a position on it, but at first read he said he was pleased.

“It’s simple, straightforward language,” Tate said.

The legislation would give the state agency’s executive commissioner the ability to set up procedures that would determine when and how a center would be closed, including safeguards for residents being transferred to new homes and jobs.

Stephen Gersuk, a volunteer for the Denton State Supported Living Center and parent of a resident there, said this is the third biennium he’s seen some kind of legislation to close the centers, which he thinks would be disastrous for the 488 people who still live at the Denton center, most of whom are older.

His son, who has Cornelia de Lange syndrome, lived in a group home for many years because residency in the state-supported living center was not offered.

Even though the group home was in the community, his son was confined to the four walls of the facility most of the time, Gersuk said. After his son was abused by a caretaker, he began acting out, including banging holes into walls with his head.

He son was sent to the state psychiatric facility in Wichita Falls for a brief period, after which the family was finally offered residency at the Denton State Supported Living Center.

From the family’s perspective, it took an incident of that magnitude for their son to have a ticket out, Gersuk said.

“It [the Denton center] is a community,” Gersuck said. “It’s the most integrated setting he could have.”

Gersuk can understand the widespread belief that, with support, many people with disabilities can live in the community. His wife worked for a group that helped provide that support. Some of her clients went on to get jobs, sometimes making more money than she did in helping them, he said.

But Gersuk isn’t convinced that group homes and community placement are good for everyone.

According to Tate, the last time he and other advocates met with the U.S. Department of Justice monitors, they, too, learned that only about one in three community placements in Texas has worked out for residents.

He pointed to other legislation that could help with that, including Senate Bill 1045. Also filed by Rodriguez, that bill provides for study not only of the center but also the community and its resources. That bill also has a companion, House Bill 3312.

The Austin State Supported Living Center has a pilot project partnering with three local agencies to help its residents make the transition into the community. In the past five or six months, the center has placed about 40 residents, Tate said.

When compared to placements by all the other facilities combined, the effort appears to be working, he said.

Combined, the other 12 facilities help about 15 residents transition into the community each month, compared to Austin, which is helping eight to 10 per month make a life outside the center, he said.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, leads the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, the likely place SB 1766 will be referred.

She has not yet had a chance to review the bill and relayed through a spokeswoman that she would have to review the bill and consider input from stakeholders before taking a position on it.

Nelson and other members of the state Senate committee heard testimony last summer on the lack of progress during federal monitoring.

In 2008, the U.S. Justice Department discovered abusive conditions at the centers and sued after reports emerged of an alleged “fight club” at the Corpus Christi center. In a 2009 settlement agreement, Texas agreed to meet 171 standards of care for all 13 centers, including Denton. Federal monitors have been evaluating each center every six months since.

State Health and Human Services Commissioner Chris Traylor told senators last summer that he believed that the centers would have been further along in achieving compliance. At the time of the 2009 settlement, the culture at the centers had been one of custodial care. The shift toward focusing on the residents’ quality of life has been slow in coming, he said.

Statewide, the population living at all the centers has dropped in the past 10 years, according to Cecilia Cavuto, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

Officials there are also still reviewing the proposed legislation, she said.

She declined to speculate on which, or when, any center might be closed or consolidated with another, issuing a statement instead.

“At this time, DADS’ role is to provide lawmakers with whatever information is needed and requested to help guide them in any decisions they might make on closure and/or consolidation,” Cavuto wrote in an e-mail.

Tate said he didn’t think any closure would come without warning, and something could be learned from the Austin center’s model.

In other words, if a similar local partnership is set up in another community to help residents move out, “that could be a cue that closure is coming,” Tate said.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is .