Perry Downplayed Allegations at Centers for Disabled

Part two of two.

Yesterday: Two years after Texas leaders signed a federal agreement to improve care at the state’s institutions, not even a quarter of its terms have been met, and mistreatment is still commonplace.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign hinges on one overarching message: that states perform best when left to their own devices and federal regulators should butt out. Yet during his decade-long tenure in the governor’s office, Perry and his staff repeatedly downplayed the severity of abuse and neglect allegations at Texas’ state-run institutions for the disabled — until conditions became so dire that the U.S. attorney general was forced to intervene.   

“They haven’t taken it seriously,” said Joe Tate, a policy specialist with Community Now!, an organization that supports the closure of Texas’ institutions for the disabled. “We hear all the time from lawmakers that there’s not the political will to make changes. That political will — the knowledge that we have deadly, dangerous institutions — could come from the governor’s office.”

Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said the governor’s office has taken reports of abuse and neglect in Texas' state-supported living centers seriously from the very beginning. Early in his first term, he signed legislation and issued an executive order designed to improve conditions and give disabled residents more options to move out of the institutions.

In 2005, when he learned problems in the state-supported living centers had not abated, his office said he made sure the Department of Aging and Disability Services, which oversees Texas’ 13 institutions, had the resources to fund reform.

“Gov. Perry is committed to ensuring the safety of the residents in these facilities, and we take each of these claims very seriously,” Nashed said. “We continue to monitor the progress they are making toward meeting the terms of the agreement.”

But a look back at the timeline of abuse reports — and the response of the governor’s office to them — paints a far more nuanced picture.

After the U.S. Department of Justice released a report critical of conditions at the Lubbock State School in 2006 — saying there had been more than 17 deaths there in 18 months — the governor’s office suggested the problems had already been solved.

“Some would like to ramp up another emotional issue,” Perry spokesman Robert Black said at the time, referring to a recent abuse and neglect scandal in Texas’ juvenile justice system, the Texas Youth Commission (TYC).  

When a 2007 Dallas Morning News investigation found hundreds of mentally and physically disabled residents of the state-supported living centers had suffered serious abuse at the hands of those paid to watch over them, Perry’s office cautioned against any assumptions that the system was flawed and said despite reports of physical and sexual assault, the centers shouldn’t be compared to the abuse-ridden TYC.

“It’s important not to sensationalize these incidents,” then-spokeswoman Krista Moody said. “They should not be portrayed as though they happened yesterday and no action has been taken.”

And in August 2008, when the Justice Department announced it was going to investigate conditions inside all of Texas’ institutions for the disabled — not just in Lubbock — Perry’s office was unfazed.

“We expected that [the Department of Justice] would expand their investigation to all state schools as they have done in other states,” spokeswoman Allison Castle said. She added that the governor is “always interested in ways to improve state government.”

Four months later — and two years after the original Justice Department report — the U.S. attorney general’s office sent Perry a 60-page letter threatening legal action if Texas didn’t resolve the problems, including residents dying of preventable conditions and hundreds of employees being fired for abuse and neglect.

Only when faced with legal action and monetary damages did Perry’s tone shift: In February 2009 he declared protecting the residents of Texas’ institutions for the disabled a legislative emergency. In May 2009, the state reached an agreement with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to spend $112 million over five years to improve care and enhance staffing at the institutions.

Asked at the time why it had taken so long to pass needed legislation, Perry said that health and human services agencies have “always been difficult to address” and that Texas was a big state with lots of needs. “My focus has always been, when an issue bubbles up to the top, to bring in the best people you can find,” he said.

Halfway through the five-year settlement agreement, Texas’ federally appointed watchdog group says the state has met just 20 percent of the standards required to comply. To this, too, the governor’s office is taking a glass-half-full approach.

“The governor expects DADS to continue to work toward full compliance of the settlement agreement,” Nashed said. “While there is still work to be done, each facility and their staff continue to make significant progress toward substantial compliance, including better reporting, investigation, prosecution and firing of individuals who commit these crimes.

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