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Al Key - DRC

Center’s future not secure

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
Denton State Supported Living Center Director Nancy Condon, right, visits with resident Mary Blakely on Thursday. The center is home to 461 residents.Al Key - DRC
Denton State Supported Living Center Director Nancy Condon, right, visits with resident Mary Blakely on Thursday. The center is home to 461 residents.
Al Key - DRC

David Brady reached into a big bowl of bolts Thursday morning, matching the longer ones to the picture on the photocopied guide in front of him. After he matched a pair of shorter bolts from another big bowl, he started matching washers.

He is one of 461 residents at the Denton State Supported Living Center, which houses people with physical and developmental disabilities. He packages kits for boat parts known as hydrofoils — work they do under a contract between the center and the parts manufacturer.

Brady, 40, who has lived in Denton for nearly 20 years, works up to six hours per day in “supported employment.” He really enjoys working with computers in another building a few hundred yards away.

“If the weather is good, I’ll be able to go to the computer lab this afternoon,” Brady said, adding that he likes exploring what the computer can do.

He’s originally from Plano.

“I like it here — this is my fifth state school,” he said.

For now, Brady’s living arrangements are secure. Guardians and center employees help care for him. But pressure to improve standards of care at Denton — and 12 other centers around the state that are home to about 4,000 people with developmental disabilities — could mean a sea change in coming years.

The state Sunset Advisory Commission issued a report last month recommending that the Austin State Supported Living Center and five other centers be closed. The commission will hold public hearings on possible closures June 24-25 in Austin. The Department of Aging and Disability Services, which operates the centers, expects that many concerned family members will testify, according to agency spokeswoman Melissa Gale.

The commission’s final decision should come during a hearing in mid-August. Final recommendations could be written into a bill for the Texas Legislature next year. Even though the final decision on closures belongs with the Legislature, the Austin center has already started closing some of its units, citing problems with recruiting and keeping staff.

It is unclear whether Denton would be among those considered for closure. The center is set up to serve the needs of people from 18 North Texas counties. Denton received two new residents in the past month, one from East Texas and one from Central Texas. This could be a hint that Denton’s future could be secure.

“Such transfers have happened before, but two in one month is unusual,” said Nancy Condon, the center’s director.

The Denton center is uniquely equipped for round-the-clock respiratory care, including ventilators for those who need them. As a result, residents with complex medical problems have come from around the state to live at Denton’s center, Condon said.

One crew at Denton’s center runs a fabrication shop that customizes wheelchairs.

Custom electronics and orthotics, especially when therapists are part of the design team, can greatly boost the user’s independence, Condon said. Paul Bezner, who heads up the shop, said their capabilities often exceed what’s available in the community.

Because Denton is equipped to handle medically complex needs, the center could be spared from the first round of cuts.

But that’s not guaranteed because many such people can live in the community and don’t require institutional care, according to Dennis Borel, with the Coalition for Texans With Disabilities.

Groups such as the coalition and Community Now, which has long advocated closing the centers, have been watching developments closely. Since federal monitoring began, the cost of maintaining the centers has risen sharply. Because the state’s other programs for people living in the community have long waiting lists — more than 120,000 people wait an average of 10 years or more for service — the disparity has fostered a perception that services for some in the living centers come at the expense of others in the community.

Denton’s center was among those that showed some of the most improvements during federal monitoring visits over the past several years.

In 2008, federal investigators found abuse, neglect and exploitation at Texas state schools, as the living 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. Federal monitors have visited all 13 centers every six months since then, writing up their findings for a federal judge supervising the settlement.

A final report from the monitors is expected this month.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.



State supported living centers in Texas: 13

Employees at Denton State Supported Living Center: 1,640

Residents at Denton Living Center: 461

Residents who are employed: 190

Companies that contract for center services: 6

SOURCE: Denton State-Supported Living Center