Commentary: Shuttering supported living centers hurts our vulnerable


Senate Bill 602 would establish a commission to evaluate the future of each of the 13 state supported living center (SSLC) currently serving persons with severe intellectual developmental disabilities.

Authored by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), the bill would authorize five gubernatorial appointees to identify centers that should be shuttered or consolidated with other centers. The bill’s authors and supporters provide three reasons for shuttering or consolidating centers: the excessive cost of the state supported living centers per capita; the existence of less expensive group home opportunities, which they call community programs; and poor management and living conditions at state supported living centers.

As a brother and guardian of someone living in a state supported living center, I contend that the bill’s advocates are either ignorant of existing conditions at the centers or willing to sacrifice the current system and its residents for a mistakenly perceived greater good — or both.

The bill’s authors and supporters frequently contend that it costs three to seven times more to serve residents at state supported living centers than residents who live in group homes. This may be true, but they do not explain the reason.

First, there are no group home settings appropriate for the overwhelming majority of SSLC residents. The intellectual developmental disabilities population currently living in a state supported living center is diverse. The majority are the most medically fragile, intellectually compromised, and socially and emotionally unstable members of this population. And it costs more to care for those with the greatest needs.

SB 602 supporters know this. Yet, they claim that living center residents can be adequately served at less cost in neighborhood group homes. The 2015 case of the Austinite who was shot by a neighbor after wandering away from a community facility in which he was inadequately monitored is just one of the most recent tragic examples of the inadequacy of community facilities for these residents.

SB 602’s real goal is consolidating state supported living centers, not keeping residents near loved ones or in their community by moving to a group home. The purpose is to achieve better “economies of scale” in how we serve our disability community.

However, consolidating centers is tantamount to a return to the warehousing of a percentage of our disability population to justify lower costs to the state. Consolidating residents in a few locations means the opposite of building community — and the bill’s authors have a responsibility to acknowledge this.

Bill supporters do not talk about how living centers have moved far from the old, institutional medical-model of care to the smaller, cottage setting that provides a more personal and dignified living environment, yet maintains needed medical, behavioral and social supports. While living in a safe, nurturing setting, residents experience the greater community through weekly off-campus outings and, when possible, worthy work engagement.

Unfortunately, many of today’s disability advocates are willing to ignore these facts because they see the monies saved coming to help others currently with no access to much-needed care and services.

Yes, let’s support these fellow Texans. But we cannot rob Peter to pay Paul. SB 602 fails to address what’s really needed: a solution to strengthen and improve the total systems of care for our intellectual developmental disabilities population. State supported living centers are an integral component of this system.

We are at a crossroads in the disability and mental health movements. For decades we’ve struggled to do what’s right for persons unable to self-advocate and express easily their desires and preferences. Actions we take today will influence the quality of life for persons with the most severe disabilities for years to come.

This is an historic opportunity. Let’s find solutions that respect family ties; that locate people unable to fend for themselves near their homes; that ensure dignified living accommodations; that foster self-advocacy; and that help residents maintain individual support networks locally.

This is the right time to invest in supporting our fellow citizens. I am all for helping more Texans — but SB 602 is the wrong approach.

Novy is a retired educator. He has taught preschoolers, worked in state government in special education and juvenile justice, and was a research associate professor at the University of Texas.



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