State employees fired for abusing Texas’ most profoundly disabled citizens are rarely prosecuted for their acts — even when they’re heinous.
A Texas Tribune review of a decade’s worth of abuse and neglect firings at state institutions for people with disabilities found that just 16 percent of the most violent or negligent employees were ever charged with crimes. Of those, the overwhelming majority had their charges reduced or dismissed; just three percent served jail time. Among the abusive employees who were never charged? An employee who punched and kicked a mentally disabled man, fracturing his ribs and lacerating his liver. An employee who sexually assaulted an immobile resident while he was giving him a bath. And a worker who used his belt to repeatedly whip a disabled resident across the face and mouth.
Elected officials, who have been under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department to improve conditions at Texas’ 13 state-supported living centers, say the lack of prosecutions is troubling — but that they can't force local district attorneys to do it.
Meanwhile, local authorities say institutional abuse cases are particularly tough to prove. The victims often can’t verbalize what happened to them. The eyewitnesses are unreliable. And just because an act of abuse is a fireable offense doesn’t mean it rises to the level of criminal conduct or even gets reported to prosecutors.
Advocacy groups say the investigation suggests a breakdown between state abuse investigators and local authorities. It also confirms their worst fear: that there’s no equal justice for people with disabilities. Unless an abuse case receives widespread media attention, like last year’s “fight club” at the Corpus Christi State School, it rarely warrants criminal charges. “If you’re the most vulnerable citizen in Texas and you’re beaten mercilessly, your perpetrator is not held accountable,” said Jeff Garrison-Tate, whose non-profit Community Now! advocates for the nearly 4,600 disabled Texans living in state institutions. “This is what perpetuates a culture of abuse in this state.”
Roughly 300 state school employees are fired or suspended every year for abusing or neglecting residents in Texas’ state-supported living centers. Since 2000, about 75 employees have been fired for “Class 1 Abuse” — the most serious physical or sexual abuse. An extensive Texas Tribune search of county and state arrest records, indictments and other court filings revealed just 13 of these fired employees were ever charged with crimes for their acts. Of those, two served jail time. Three had their cases dismissed. And seven received lesser charges or deferred adjudication in a plea deal. One case is still pending.
One employee who was fired for inserting a hairbrush in a resident's anus and fondling another resident's breasts was never charged with a crime. Neither was a worker who beat a resident in the face because she wouldn't be quiet. The woman had to be rushed to the emergency room for stitches. In another un-prosecuted case, a staffer slammed a resident face first into a door; the man sustained a head wound that required staples to close.
The Blame Game
Ask state agencies, local police and district attorneys why there are so few prosecutions and the finger pointing begins.
The Department of Aging and Disability Services oversees the state institutions and is responsible for firing abusive employees. But it doesn’t conduct abuse and neglect investigations — the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) does it for them. Officials with DFPS say whenever they get an allegation of serious physical injury, sexual abuse or death, they contact local law enforcement within the hour. If their investigation concludes a crime may have been committed, they’re required to forward their investigative report to local authorities. But DFPS doesn’t track what happens next. And police departments say they don’t always get the reports from the state. In some cases they have opened their own investigations ahead of DFPS.
District attorneys who responded to the Texas Tribune’s interview request say they don’t always get the message — either from the state investigators or from police detectives. There’s a precedent here: During the Texas Youth Commission’s sweeping abuse scandal three years ago, thousands of un-prosecuted abuse complaints were found sitting in file folders in local police departments.
"We really like to prosecute the bad guys, the employees who pick on people in state institutions. There's no problem there," said Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. If the prosecutors aren't pursuing cases, "I would surmise we're either not getting them, or they don't rise to the level of a criminal offense."
Even when prosecutors do get the case files, they’re not always able to proceed. In some cases, they say, the act the employee was fired for doesn’t qualify as criminal conduct. In other cases, authorities don’t have the evidence or witnesses to prosecute. And occasionally, when a guilty verdict isn’t a sure bet, they don’t have the resources to make the effort. “Trying to determine who’s the guilty party, and being able to prove they were the ones who inflicted the injuries — that’s especially difficult when you have a victim who is incapacitated,” said Lubbock County District Attorney Matt Powell. The Lubbock County D.A.'s office has prosecuted more of these Class 1 offenders than any other Texas D.A.'s office. Added Taylor County District Attorney James Eidson:"By their nature, these are pretty much circumstantial cases, which is what makes them so difficult."
And despite the fact that these abusive acts are committed by state employees, inside state-operated institutions, and against people who are sometimes wards of the state, Texas' own attorney general doesn't have the authority to step in. Following the 2007 TYC sexual abuse scandal, and revelations that a West Texas district attorney had failed to prosecute an abusive youth prison administrator, the attorney general's office asked lawmakers for more authority to step in. Lawmakers responded by allowing state prosecutors to offer assistance to local prosecutors. But the attorney general's office still can't intervene to force a prosecution.
"The Legislature has not given the Office of the Attorney General authority to prosecute these cases," said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. "Only district attorneys have that authority."
But advocates for the disabled say all of these explanations shroud the real reason abusive employees aren’t prosecuted: because their victims can’t demand it. Many are non-verbal or intellectually impaired. Most either don’t have families to advocate for them, or have out-of-town relatives poorly positioned to keep the pressure on local authorities. In short, advocates say, prosecutors know if they don’t make the effort, no one will hold them accountable.
“If someone saw me on the street kicking my dog, I would be in jail,” Garrison-Tate said. “But when a person with a significant disability in our state-operated, taxpayer-funded institutions is beaten, nothing happens to them.”
TOMORROW: Relatives of a disabled man choked and killed in a state school share their struggle for justice.