State officials don’t know where 100 bodies are buried at Austin’s institution for people with intellectual disabilities, raising questions about whether they are interred under nearby roads, buildings or neighbors’ yards.
The Department of Aging and Disability Services can’t find a detailed map with the names and locations of those buried at the Austin State Supported Living Center. A memorial at the site says 135 people lie there, but only 35 markers are visible on the quarter-acre site. The agency doesn’t know if some bodies have been moved to other cemeteries.
Aerial photos of the lot suggest at least a dozen other people are buried at the 100-year-old Austin center in unmarked plots. Meanwhile, some headstones are located just feet from neighbors’ yards, facility roads and utility lines.
“Our research efforts will continue, and we welcome any information the public might have related to this historic cemetery,” said Cecilia Cavuto, spokeswoman for the department.
The confusion is just the latest issue to hit to the resilient and often-under-fire living center. In 2009, Austin was among the 13 state-run living centers ordered by the U.S. Justice Department to make major changes because of systemic problems with care and services. Medicaid has repeatedly threatened to pull millions of dollars in funding. Texas officials and disabilities advocates have unsuccessfully tried for decades to shut down the 95-acre campus, opposed by residents’ family members who say their relatives receive quality care there.
Meanwhile, there is pressure to sell the centrally located property, which is valued at upwards of $25 million.
The Department of Aging and Disability Services has known for at least 18 months that it has scant information on where the bodies are buried. But the issue recently came to a head when Austin cemetery historian Dale Flatt asked the state to give him a detailed map of the names and locations of people interred at the graveyard. The agency refused, citing its obligation to protect the rights of former residents even though they have been dead at least 75 years.
This week — when the American-Statesman asked for a map without the names of those buried there — the agency said it didn’t have one.
“Unfortunately, while there are 35 marked graves in the cemetery, we have been unable to locate a plat map or historical records of interment for all of the individuals named on the memorial,” Cavuto said.
This is a common problem with old graveyards, said Ross Fields, president of Prewitt and Associates, which does historic cemetery investigations. Keeping detailed records wasn’t always the priority it is today. The Oregon State Hospital, for example, realized in 2014 the cremated remains of 1,500 former patients were missing.
Some cemeteries aren’t marked at all and are only discovered during construction.
“Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean nothing is there,” Fields said.
This isn’t the first time questions about the cemetery have emerged.
In July 2014, Susan Payne — president of an advocacy group that supports the all of the living centers — contacted Jon Weizenbaum, the disability services commissioner, to complain about the state of the cemetery. Too many gravestones were sunken, she said, and the number of markers didn’t jibe with the number of people believed to have been buried there. A large memorial plaque at the graveyard’s entrance erected in 1955 lists the names and dates of death of 135 residents buried there. The last person was interred in 1941.
The agency responded by sprucing up the cemetery. But the inconsistencies weren’t resolved.
“I have heard that some graves were moved in the 1970s to the Texas State Cemetery on 51st Street,” facility superintendent Laura Cazabon-Braly wrote in an August 2014 email. “Since the Texas State Cemetery is actually located between 6th and 11th streets, this is clearly inaccurate. However, the Austin State Hospital cemetery is on 51st street. The next step in researching would be to either search the ASH cemetery for grave markers to see if we can find the ones that have been moved there or review old agency records to pinpoint when and which cemetery the moves were made.”
Living center staffers checked to see if the bodies were buried at other cemeteries, but couldn’t find markers for any of them, Cavuto said.
“I just wanted them to restore the cemetery and bring the headstones back up,” Payne said. “I had no idea this was still going on.”
The questions came up again in February 2015, while legislators once again talked about closing the Austin center. Officials ultimately shot down that proposal, but the debate caught Flatt’s attention.
If the property eventually ended up on the auction block, developers could unintentionally disturb or build over the graves, he said. So Flatt, the founder of Save Austin’s Cemeteries, stepped in.
“I don’t expect them to tear up the road or remove buildings right now,” Flatt said. “What I do expect is for them to determine the scope of where everything is.”
Flatt asked the disability services agency for an official list of people in the graveyard and a map showing where each body was buried. The agency denied his request, which baffled Flatt because the names of those buried at the Austin living center are already on the cemetery memorial.
“While we are aware that the names of 135 individuals are publicly available on the (living center) memorial, that does not release us from our obligation to follow existing law, which was not in place when the memorial was erected,” Cavuto said.
Flatt questioned the validity of the state’s medical privacy argument, saying he never asked for that. But agency officials say the mere confirmation of those buried at the center reveals that they had an intellectual disability.
In May, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sided with Flatt, saying much of the information was already in the public domain and that the privacy claim didn’t hold water. Paxton ordered the agency to release the information. It refused to do so. In June, it filed a lawsuit against the attorney general in state District Court in Travis County. The next court hearing is scheduled for March 31.
Aerial photos suggest that numerous other bodies might still be on the site, Flatt said. More than a dozen grave-shaped indentations can be seen in the grass next to marked plots. All of them are located within a black metal fence surrounding the quarter-acre plot.
One way to find the graves would be to use ground-penetrating radar, said Fields, the cemetery investigator. A more accurate way is to remove a few inches of topsoil to find signs of a burial, but that’s a more invasive method, he said.
Payne says the state needs to do something.
“You just can’t do that to these people,” she said. “You can’t pretend they were never there.”