The Austin Chronicle

Sun to Set on Severely Disabled Patients

By Mary Tuma, August 11, 2014, 9:00am, Newsdesk

In June, the Wallaces were “blindsided” when they received a letter from the Austin State Supported Living Center notifying them that their son Justin, who suffers from severe autism, and roughly 70 other people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, would be forced out by as early as September.

Within the next three months, Justin will need to relocate to an SSLC in another city – and away from his family support network – or rely on community services alone.

For his mother, Debra, both options will place her son in greater danger.

“We are devastated – what is going to happen to Justin?” says Debra Wallace. “And unfortunately, it’s not just us – other families are panicking, too.”

The decision to shrink the Austin SSLC comes after the Sunset Advisory Commission, a state agency tasked with pointing out governmental inefficiencies, recommended closing the Austin SSLC (by 2017) and five other state-supported living centers to be determined at a later date by an advisory committee, for cost-saving reasons. The argument largely hinged on dollars and cents: “Delivering services to a person for a year in an SSLC costs about $113,000 more than serving that person in an equivalent program in the community. … [T]he State can no longer afford to support all 13 centers,” the report reads.

The report also points to lack of compliance with requirements imposed on the Department of Aging and Disability Services by the Department of Justice in 2009, following reports of abuse and neglect at all 13 centers. (Families contacted by Newsdesk are cognizant of the troubled record, but say they have had nothing but positive experiences with the Austin center, and some have suggested that DADS has grown lax in regulating and managing the centers.)

The closures would affect 300 intellectually and developmentally challenged Austin residents, and about 1,000 residents statewide.

A month after the Sunset recommendation, the Department of Aging and Disability Services, citing high overtime expenditures amid struggling employee recruitment and retainment, recommended accelerating the shrinkage of the Austin center (initiated in 2012), especially in light of the Sunset proposal. DADS called for the permanent closures of seven of the SSLC homes on the expansive state campus.

But while the Sunset recommendation of actual closure would require a legislative nod in the 2015 session, nothing stops DADS from “downsizing” the center in the meantime – and that’s exactly what they’ve begun to do.

The closures will come in waves – three “cottages” will be closed by Sept. 15; two by Oct. 1 and another two by Nov. 1, according to a June letter addressed to families. While the families have voiced strong opposition to the move, community-support advocates say it’s long overdue. “People with disabilities should be integrated with communities, not segregated,” said Dennis Borel, community-services advocate and executive director with the Coalition of Texans With Disabilities.

Families like the Wallaces aren’t opposed to community-based care, and many support those services. However, they say that living outside an SSLC, their loved ones will not receive an equivalent degree of individual attention. Unlike a “group home” setting, SSLCs house an infirmary staffed 24 hours a day, and employ physicians, therapists, nurses, and a dentist, all of whom are specialized in treating medically fragile and behaviorally challenged patients. And the other choice – sending loved ones to non-Austin SSLCs (in Brenham or San Antonio) pushes the disabled further from guardian oversight.

Like many residents, Justin, prone to self-injury, requires constant supervision and immediate access to hospital-level services. “Our son could never survive in the community – if he were to be transferred to a group home, he would be dead in a day or two,” said Wallace bluntly.

To alleviate the worry, DADS is telling families that “transition teams” will closely monitor the moves. “We understand their concerns and are committed to making sure services are available in the community before they move out,” DADS spokeswoman Melissa Gale told Newsdesk.

For Justin Wallace’s mother, she wishes they didn’t have to make the forced transition in the first place. “Basically, they have made the most vulnerable in our society beggars at their own tables,” Debra Wallace said.

A final vote by the Sunset Commission is set for August 13. Whatever the statewide decision, it is not expected to affect the plan to downsize the Austin Center.

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