While most state and local agencies in Texas struggle with severe budget cuts, one of the least effective and most poorly managed programs continues to rake in hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars with minimal oversight or accountability. Despite multiple recommendations for their closure, Texas’ state-supported living centers benefit from an inexplicable level of funding that represents a sizeable portion of the estimated $27 billion budget shortfall for 2011. That a program with such a high cost to value ratio persists in such dire economic times calls into question state lawmakers’ commitment to fiscal austerity. But even more alarmingly, by sanctioning these living centers, they are failing to safeguard a vulnerable population from recognized physical abuse and neglect. As it stands, this nightmare of irresponsibility borders on the criminal, and any honest discourse reveals that there is little to justify the continued operation of these centers.
Formerly known as state schools, Texas state-supported living centers are essentially government-run mental institutions. Comprised of a group of 13 facilities across the state, they are charged with housing and caring for roughly 4,200 individuals with profound intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, with many of the residents displaying behavioral issues that greatly complicate the situation. While at one time they were the only option for the severely disabled, today these centers care for only a small fraction of the approximately 43,000 Texans with developmental disabilities who receive state-funded services. An ever-increasing number of SSLC-eligible residents are cared for by community based services that have proven to be more humane and cost efficient than the government run program. But the greater deterrent from using SSLCs arises from the multiple scandals that have plagued the institutions and left them with a reputation of being houses of sheer brutality.
The litany of offenses is stomach-turning. Residents have been lashed with belts, had their throats stepped on and have been physically restrained for hours on end. In 2002, a mentally disabled but otherwise healthy resident of a SSLC in Denton was beaten so severely that he was left using a wheelchair and unable to feed himself. Between 2004 and 2005, 17 residents died under suspicious circumstances at the location in Lubbock. In 2009, staff members at the Corpus Christi unit were caught on video forcing residents to fight one another as a sick form of entertainment. This offense brought about an investigation by the Justice Department that found the overall system so appalling that the state was ordered into a $112 million settlement and mandated to completely overhaul the SSLCs by 2014. So far, any changes have been few and far between. Even with the state pumping in over $500 million a year, SSLCs are routinely found implementing inhumane treatment against the disabled. Last year, instances of abuse and neglect at the centers led to the firing of 375 staff members. Disgusted by what they observe, decent employees continue to quit at a prodigious rate. As yet another indication that reforms have been minimal, activists filed a lawsuit against state officials earlier this year that claims that SSLCs are violating the civil rights of their residents.
Without question, the severely disabled are better served by community-based and privately run services. Instances of abuse at these facilities are negligible, and when they do occur, they are dealt with thoroughly and swiftly. Unsurprisingly, community based programs can accomplish this feat at a fraction of the cost that is spent running SSLCs. While the state facilities demand over $120,000 a year per resident, local services require only $50,000. And the SSLC costs are only expected to rise due to expensive building maintenance and renovations that are needed to comply with legal settlements.
The closure of SSLCs should have been mandated years ago, and as long as they remain open, the safety and lives of the severely disabled are in dire risk. But if the welfare of the disabled does not move politicians to act, then perhaps financial matters will. Instead of the state throwing away its money on an abysmal and seemingly unredeemable state program, Texas should shift it resources towards funding proven and effective community-based services.
Marc Anderson is a 3rd-year cell biology Ph.D. student and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.