The Caretaker

One mother's crusade to better the life of her mentally retarded son and the system that failed him

Farhat Chishty pushes her son's wheelchair into the shade of an oak tree and sits down with a sigh. It's a calm spring morning at Denton State School, the largest institution for people with mental retardation in Texas, and she has come for her morning visit. She puts a knit cap on her son's head and adjusts a blanket over his bony knees. A gentle gust of wind blows across campus.

Spread out over 200 acres of wooded, rolling hills, the school has the bucolic feel of a summer camp. It has been described as a place of systematic abuse and torture—an Abu Ghraib for the retarded—but it hardly seems that way this morning. Not far from the park bench where she sits, a man in a wheelchair is motoring around the leafy campus, headed perhaps to the chapel or the Wooden Nickel restaurant to get an ice cream cone. This is a school in name only. The median age of its 630 residents is 49. The only thing they have in common is the need for around-the-clock supervision. Some have Down syndrome, some are autistic, and some lack the ability to walk or talk. Chishty's son falls in the latter category.

Every day she comes here to be with him—to wash his wiry hair and clip his yellowed nails and rub his calloused feet. The boy has no control over his body. His head rolls from side to side, his eyes dart from one thing to the other, and drool pools out of his mouth. His name is Haseeb, and he is 34.

He wasn't always like this. For most of his life, he has been profoundly mentally retarded, but there was a time when he could sing and dance and communicate with his mother in broken English and Urdu. There was a time when he ate cheeseburgers with his family and bopped his head to his brother's hip-hop. And then something happened.

Six years ago, not far from where Chishty sits, a nurse's aide found Haseeb in bed, soaking in his own blood and urine. No one at the school could explain what happened. For six months he lay in intensive care, suffering from massive internal injuries that triggered toxic shock and then paralysis. His mother insisted someone at the school was to blame—she had seen a bruise in the shape of a footprint near his groin on the morning they found him. But no one had reported any abuse, so her claims went ignored.

For two-and-a-half years, she told this story to anyone who would listen, and then the unexpected happened. Kevin Miller, a former caregiver at the school, admitted he had abused Haseeb in a drug-induced rage, punching and kicking him more than a dozen times. He said his supervisors knew about the attack and helped him cover it up. Even more alarming, he said abuse at the school was rampant. He knew his confession, which he first offered at a drug rehab clinic in Houston, might send him to prison, but he felt it was worth the risk if it sparked reforms.

More than three years have passed since then, and none of the changes Miller envisioned have taken place. Yet largely thanks to Chishty's efforts, her son has become the face of a movement. For the first time in nearly a decade, advocacy groups for the mentally retarded are pushing for the closure of the 13 state schools in Texas. These facilities, which house nearly 5,000 people, represent the largest institutionalization of mentally retarded in the nation, at a cost to taxpayers of $465 million last year. The alternative—smaller, community-based group homes—are cheaper, safer and more humane, mental health rights advocates say. The trend across the country is toward this model of care, and other states, including California and New York, have either shuttered their institutions or are in the process of doing so.

Jeff Garrison-Tate, who heads Community Now, an Austin-based advocacy group, cites the Chishty tragedy as a defining example of why Texas should close all its state schools. "Haseeb is the tip of the iceberg," he says. "By their very nature, these are places where abuse is rife to occur."

While officials with the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services—the state agency charged with overseeing state schools—says Haseeb's case represents an isolated incident, the agency's own records paint a different picture. In April, the Associated Press reported that in the last three years, more than 800 state school employees have been fired for causing serious injury to residents. That followed a July 2007 review of records by The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle that found disturbing cases of abuse and neglect statewide. Most devastating, however, was an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, which in 2006 documented neglect, cover-up and 17 deaths in 18 months at the Lubbock State School.

The Dallas Observer's own review of more than 800 pages of disciplinary records covering 11 state schools over the last five years reveals a widespread pattern of abuse and neglect throughout the system. These records are littered with incidents of staffers choking, punching and whipping clients. They also indicate that staffers often say injuries to residents, which they caused, were self-inflicted or the result of accidents; threats and intimidation of residents were tactics regularly employed by staff to ensure their abuse went unreported.

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