If You Thought Things Were Bad at State Schools, It's Probably Worse

Mark Graham

Last week’s cover story on abuse at state-run institutions for the mentally retarded generated both positive and negative feedback. Cecilia Fedorov, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (the agency that oversees state schools) called me last week to tell me she was “disappointed” with the piece. Fedorov insisted there was much more to the story of Haseeb Chishty’s abuse than we reported. Chishty’s mother, Farhat, declined a request to allow Fedorov to discuss Haseeb’s case with the Observer, per state privacy laws.

“From the beginning DADS has fabricated false stories about what happened to Haseeb and successfully covered up his abuse for years and years,” Farhat Chishty said. “Even though the perpetrator of the abuse has confessed, they still will not admit to anything.”

The Observer also received a letter from the former superintendent of Denton State School, where Haseeb lives, stating that her recent resignation didn’t have anything to do with alleged cases of abuse at the facility. She did say, however, that she quit because she had already been through one lawsuit alleging widespread abuse and neglect at state school facilities (the Lelsz v. Kavanaugh suit, which triggered reforms system wide) and didn’t want to go through another. (The Department of Justice is currently investigating Denton State School, and a lawsuit coming out of their investigation is a distinct possibility.)

“As an employee at that time, the paper shuffle was ridiculous, but I must admit that the additional funds channeled to the state schools did make life for the clients better,” the former superintendent wrote. “Better furniture and other goods were purchased so that the schools looked more like homes and less like institutions.”

Perhaps the most telling aspect of her letter is the next line, in which she expresses mixed feelings about the money that came the state school’s way as a result of the lawsuit.

“As a taxpayer,” she writes, “I hated some of the additions made because of the lawsuit.”

It is -- in my mind, at least -- a revealing line about the mindset of at least one executive who helped run state schools for 32 years. Sure, the lawsuit resulted in some positive changes, she seems to be saying, but do these people I was charged with caring for really need new furniture? Is that really the best use of our tax dollars? Do they really know the difference?It reminds me of a conversation I had with Garnet Coleman, a Houston legislator who has been one of the most vocal critics of funding shortfalls that have left state schools severely understaffed. “We can argue all we want about the proper role of government,” he said. “But these people are the least among us, and we spend less than every state except one on their care. What does that say about us?”

The bulk of the feedback we received was from former workers, who were not among the dozen current and former DSS employees I talked to for the story. I expected to get letters from DSS employees, saying the article wasn’t fair to them and made too much of abuse allegations at the facility. Instead, what I got were letters from former employees who said my story only scratched the surface of what’s going on at DSS and other state schools in the system. Considering what our story revealed, that’s alarming, to say the least.

“The state school system for people with disabilities is broken beyond repair,” says Jeff Garrison-Tate, president of a group called Community Now, which plans to host a protest on conditions at state schools this Thursday in Austin. “Hundreds of people are being denied their choice to leave these institutions and live in the community in violation fo federal law. It is past time for [the state] to develop a long-range plan to ensure all those individuals who choose to leave these institutions have every opportunity to do so and to close the facilities we no longer need.” --Jesse Hyde