DADS: We’re not that bad

Following the earlier reports of systemwide problems of abuse and neglect at state facilities for the mentally retarded, the agency in charge has responded by saying it’s not as bad as it sounds.

State officials said Friday there was no widespread pattern of abuse at Texas’ schools for the mentally retarded, despite documents released earlier this week that revealed hundreds of instances of abuse and neglect systemwide over a seven-year period.

“I would say widespread is wrong,” Addie Horn, commissioner for the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, told reporters.

She said her agency, through training, background checks, drug tests and screening, does as much as possible to rid itself of abusive and negligent caregivers. But it is, in a sense, a roll of the dice.

“You can’t judge how a person will react based on a situation they’re faced with nor can you weed out people who … take advantage of others,” Horn said.

Starting off with weasel words isn’t a particularly good sign. I agree that in any system this size, there are always going to be some problems and some bad apples, but that’s not the issue. This issue is whether or not the system had enough safeguards in place to prevent abuse, and sufficient processes to deal with abuse when it did happen. The jury is very much still out on both counts.

The agency later confirmed 600 cases of abuse and neglect at all of its schools over the past two years and said it would release more documents soon.

Seeking to contain a potentially damaging public relations crisis, Horn and Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins attempted to put the abuse reports in context, explaining that the incidents occurred over a seven-year period at facilities that provide 24-hour care every day of the year for nearly 5,000 residents.

They outlined steps the agency was taking to deal with abuse and neglect cases.

Horn said the agency last year began terminating all employees who inflict any physical harm on a resident, whether that harm is severe or not.

Agency documents reviewed by the Chronicle revealed instances in which abusive employees were merely demoted or reprimanded, and left to continue working with the state’s most fragile population.

Hawkins said the agency also was reviewing the grievance process which allows state school employees who are disciplined or terminated by the agency to appeal the decision to an administrative law judge. That judge can reverse the agency’s decision and the agency now cannot appeal that decision. Employees who appeal their cases prevail 38 percent of the time, according to records.

Hawkins said he regrets that state school employees are not considered at-will employees, and thus may only be terminated for “good cause” and only after they are given notice.

Terminating employees who do harm is a good start. I find Commissioner Hawkins’ regrets about the grievance system to be misguided, since having a good, working grievance system in place is a way to keep workers from becoming disgruntled, which in turn seems like a good way to keep frustrations from being displaced onto residents. These folks don’t make much money to begin with. Why make conditions worse for them?

All in all, I see a few glimmers of hope, but plenty of reasons to be skeptical. For all the light that was shone on the TYC in the wake of its scandals, there’s still plenty going on that we don’t know about, so there’s a long way to go before we can feel comfortable about what’s happening with the state schools.

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