Richards To Decide on Closing Schools for Retarded
Gov. Ann W. Richards of Texas is expected to decide by next week whether to shut down 2 of 13 state schools for the mentally retarded, thus putting an end to a 19-year-old legal battle that has deeply divided the state's disability community.
The state must target at least two schools for closing in order to comply with a court settlement.
Deciding which schools to close, however, has been an emotional process for the state.
Although Texas has lagged behind many other states in shifting from institutional to community-based care for the retarded, the debate there has continued to raise basic questions about the best way to care for such people.
On one side of the issue are the parents of current state-school residents, who say they are fearful for their children's future if the institutions are closed. Those parents are joined by the communities in which the schools are located, which stand to lose hundreds of jobs once the institutions shut down.
On the other side are the state's major disability organizations, which argue that citizens with disabilities have a right to better services in mainstream community settings.
"This is a terrible, hard gut-wrenching issue,'' said Andy Homer, an aide to Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, an Austin Democrat who has criticized the state's handling of the issue. "There is no clear right thing to do.''
Group Homes Favored
The state schools have been under the supervision of U.S. District Court Judge Barefoot Sanders since 1974, when a group of parents and guardians of institutional residents filed a lawsuit charging that their children were being neglected and abused in the schools and lacked needed educational, medical, and psychological services.
Noting that the institutions had made significant improvements over the years, Judge Sanders in December said he would end the case if the state closed two schools and took steps to place more residents in smaller, less segregated settings, such as group homes in the community.
A special task force appointed to recommend which schools to close this month selected two--the Travis State School in Austin and Mexia State School, the state's largest, in rural Mexia. Together, those institutions house about 1,340 residents and employ about twice that many workers.
The five-member panel said it chose the two sites for closing primarily for geographic reasons, to preserve an adequate distribution of facilities across the state's vast expanse.
The panel also called on the state to shut down two more unspecified facilities after 1999, when the Mexia and Travis schools would be slated for closing.
"This reflects a strong commitment to change the direction of services for people with mental retardation in Texas to a more balanced mix between large, segregated institutions and community-based settings,'' said Linda Parrish, a special-education professor at Texas A&M University and the chairman of the task force.
Governor Richards must decide whether to accept or reject those recommendations by March 31. Under the terms of the agreement approved in December, court supervision would end when the first school closes.
Ms. Richards has said she favors ending the lawsuit. She has also cautioned, however, that "our most immediate concern is to be certain that in the event of any closures, every resident affected will be moved to a place where their well-being is assured.''
'Good Service' at Institutions
Parents of institutional residents have already filed at least two lawsuits to stop the closures.
"We did not put our son in a state school because we didn't like him,'' said Fred Snyder, the president of the Parents Association for the Retarded in Texas, which is appealing the court settlement. "We put him in a state school because we loved him.''
"We think they're providing good service,'' he added.
Mr. Snyder also pointed out that many of the residents, who have spent virtually all of their lives in the institutions, now have elderly parents who cannot care for them at home or travel far to visit them.
But state officials say closing some schools will allow them to direct more effort to developing community placements. Some of the combined $55 million now spent to maintain the Mexia and Travis schools would be used to fund group homes, where some of the more able residents would go.
The remaining residents would be transferred to other state institutions, according to Patricia Cole, the director of health and human-services policy for Governor Richards.
State schools currently serve only 22 percent of all the state's mentally retarded clients, Ms. Cole noted, but take up 65 percent of the funds budgeted for care of that population. "That's not a balance,'' she said.
The state already has plans to move 300 residents a year into community settings. But residents often must wait "years and years'' for those placements, Ms. Cole explained.
"If the Governor accepts the recommendations, it will signal, for the first time in our state, that we are moving toward the community,'' said Libby Doggett, the executive director of the Association of Retarded Citizens-Texas. "And the community is where we need to be.''
Disability-rights advocates say that Texas has historically been behind most states in the movement to serve people with mental retardation in their own communities.
Over the past two decades, an increasing number of states have closed their institutions as enrollments have dwindled and advocates have pushed for deinstitutionalization. Changes in federal special-education law begun in the 1970's have also enabled more children with disabilities to attend schools in their communities.
New Hampshire, for example, closed its last state school for the mentally retarded last year, and New York State plans to do so by the end of the decade.
In Texas, the number of state-school residents has declined from
13,700 in 1974 to 6,700 now, according to Ms. Cole. Most residents are
age 30 or older.