Governor Rick Perry declares institutions for the mentally disabled an emergency issue

AUSTIN, TX (AP) - Governor Rick Perry declared fixing state institutions for the mentally disabled a top priority for lawmakers today.

The declaration comes after a federal report outlined negligent and abusive care that led to dozens of deaths in Texas.

Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle says the state has "a duty to ensure the safety" of residents in state schools.  Republican state Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound is working with Perry's office. She's filed a bill that would create an official to be appointed by the governor to investigate injuries and deaths at the institutions known as state schools. The measure also would require better background checks for staff and audits of the schools twice a year.

The bill doesn't call for a moratorium on enrollments or closure of some schools that some advocates for the disabled have demanded.  Critics allege Texas remains stuck in an era when the mentally disabled were hidden away in large, impersonal facilities far from relatives and communities.

A Justice Department report released in December found at least 53 patients in Texas' large residential facilities died in 2007 from preventable conditions often resulting from lapses in care.

Texas houses nearly 5,000 residents in 13 state schools.

The state schools bill is SB643.

Meanwhile, the agency that runs the state institutions for mentally disabled Texans is imposing a near blackout on information about the troubled facilities.

Governor Rick Perry this week declared institutions for the mentally disabled an emergency issue for the Legislature.

The Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services is facing federal pressure to correct widespread abuse and neglect in the facilities known as state schools. But the San Antonio Express-News reports the agency's refused more than a dozen requests for information in the past two years.

The agency clamped down in response to a Justice Department investigation that found at least 53 state schools residents died in 2007 from preventable conditions that were often the result of lapses in care.

Open records requests ranged from statistics on abuse and neglect to staffing vacancies. A review of Texas attorney general's opinions showed the agency invoked the threat of possible litigation from the Justice Department to withhold information, the newspaper reported.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

NOTE:  East Texas News spoke with Cecelia Fedorov, with the Texas Department of Aging and Disabilities and spokesperson for Lufkin State School who said, "We have been making changes in the state school system for several years and that process is ongoing and we work very closely with state legislators even during the interim.  We look forward to continuing our work with them throughout this legislative session."