Senate Votes to Close Austin State Supported Living Center

Despite guardian opposition, Senate passes bill to close Austin SSLC

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, voted against the Senate bill to close the Austin State Supported Living Center.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, voted against the Senate bill to close the Austin State Supported Living Center. (by John Anderson)

Against the wishes of dozens of family members of the intellectually and physically disabled, the Texas Senate passed legislation that would allow for the closure of the Austin State Supported Living Center yesterday, April 13.

In a 26-5 vote, the Senate greenlighted SB 204, which directs the closure of the Austin SSLC and establishes a restructuring committee to decide how many and which other of the 12 state supported living centers should also close – that process is expected to take up to 10 years.

“We have received very emotional testimony, especially when it comes to the state supported living center here in Austin,” said bill author, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on the floor. Hinojosa directed some criticism toward the Austin SSLC, including the Department of Justice oversight due to alleged abuse. “The reality is that the [Austin SSLC] was built in 1917, it has structural problems, it’s falling apart … I don’t think anyone will be left out in the cold; they can stay and be transferred to a community home or be transferred to another state supported living center.”

However, that is precisely what guardians of SSLC residents want to avoid, for the health and safety of their loved ones, as the Chronicle previously reported (See: "Evicted and Helpless," Sept. 19, 2014). Relegating them to a strictly community or group home setting can endanger their lives and those around them, as several residents are prone to self-injury and intense behavioral problems, family members and guardians protesting the closure contend.

Before a final vote was cast, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, expressed his deep disappointment with the closure. “I will candidly tell you this has been a difficult and emotional issue for me because I have people that I care about on both sides of this issue,” he said. Watson cast doubt on the ability of the state to create sufficient capacity to accommodate all or even most of the SSLC residents by the 2017 closure date. He cited an estimation by the Department of Aging and Disability Services that showed 70% of the Austin SSLC residents preferred to stay at an SSLC rather than a community setting, meaning the majority will most likely be moved to centers that could soon be recommended for another shut down. “I believe we should at least delay closure in Austin until we know which other facilities will be closed so we don’t end up moving people in Austin to another location only to move them again.”

The Austin lawmaker said ultimately, the state is to blame. “Where we find ourselves today is due in part to a failure of the state to best serve these most vulnerable Texans,” said a visibly emotional Watson. “Simply closing this facility will not ensure safety, dignity, and respect for Texans living with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We fixed nothing.”

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who also voted against the bill and oversees a district with two SSLCs, expressed wanting to somehow salvage the Austin center. She reminded lawmakers Texas SSLCs have made “great strides” and are state-regulated, while community homes are not. “I hope this bill gives us the framework to move forward to not just say ‘institutional living is bad, bad, bad, and we need to depopulate all the state supported living centers,’” said Kolkhorst. “It is painful for families of the [Austin SSLC] and my heart goes out to them.”

An amendment offered by Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, ensured that members of the working group who decide on the SSLC closures cannot have vested financial interests in “any contract or proposed contract with a licensed provider of ICF-IID services” or in the overall closure of a state supported living center.

The Sunset Advisory Com­mission, the state agency tasked with identifying governmental inefficiencies, voted on Aug. 13 to close the Austin SSLC. The closure would mark the first since 1995, and would affect nearly 300 intellectually and developmentally challenged Austin residents and potentially up to 1,000 residents statewide. In June, DADS, citing high overtime expenditures amid struggling employee recruitment and retainment, recommended accelerating the shrinkage of the Austin center with the permanent closures of seven of the SSLC "cottages" and the displacement of 70 residents to another state SSLC or community homes. Some families continue to contest the move in court.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Sen. Kirk Watson, Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, 84th Texas Legislature, Austin State Supported Living Center

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