Texas still battles abuse at institutions

I was saddened, dismayed and even disgusted last Sunday when I read the main story on the front page of the Austin American-Statesman.  Abuse and neglect at institutions for people with intellectual disabilities is still a serious problem in Texas.

I say “still” because in the 1990s, I worked for the state agency that oversaw these institutions, and abuse and neglect was a big problem then. Twenty years later, Texas has drastically reduced the populations at its 13 institutions. But problems persist.

High number of caregivers fired

I was shocked to read that in 2009, 1100 employees out of a total workforce of 14,000 had been fired for abuse and neglect. The Department of Aging and Disability Services signed an agreement three years ago with the U.S. Justice Department to crack down on abusers. But mistreatment remains a serious issue.

As part of the agreement, the state has installed surveillance cameras in facilities. These cameras have been useful in confirming cases of abuse, but apparently they have not proven to be much of a deterrent.

Tragically, some residents pay the ultimate price for these conditions. A 28-year-old man living at the Richmond State Supported Living Center died in 2010 from blunt force trauma to his abdomen. Two employees were fired and later indicted in the case.  At the Brenham facility, a resident died after choking on a peanut butter sandwich while staffers played cards in another room.

Suitable workers hard to find

Dr. David Braddock, executive director of the Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities at the University of Colorado says it takes very special, almost gifted people to work with residents of institutions. Because individuals with these qualifications are rare and the pay for these jobs is low, “we tend to hire people who aren’t necessarily suited to such environments. We shouldn’t be too surprised that many of them get frustrated and angry and act out against the residents.”

And so it all goes back to how much the state – and ultimately the public – is willing to devote to the care of society’s most vulnerable people.

The story that appeared in Sunday’s newspaper could have been written 20 years ago when I worked for the state. It could have been written 50 or 100 years ago almost anywhere in the country.  I am disheartened that so little has changed.