Denton State Supported Living Center

A security employee works Friday at the front gate of the Denton State Supported Living Center, which added security at the campus entrance this past week. Resident Kevin Lewis’ body was found Thursday behind the campus kitchen, five days after he was reported missing from the grounds.

Residents frequently walk off the Denton State Supported Living Center campus and Texas’ 12 other institutions for people with developmental disabilities, state records show.

LeCarvin DeKevin “Kevin” Lewis, 41, was reported as walking off the Denton campus midafternoon Saturday, June 29. Instead, however, he was found dead behind the campus kitchen on Thursday.

Data released this past week from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission showed that residents made an “unauthorized departure” from the Denton State Supported Living Center or one of Texas’ other centers 143 times so far this fiscal year.

“Often an individual may start to leave our campus in plain sight,” state spokeswoman Christine Mann wrote in an email. “We do not have locked centers and we do not restrain people for merely walking away, so staff will accompany them to ensure their safety.”

Several years ago, a few residents frequently left the campus of the El Paso State Supported Living Center. There was a convenience store next to the campus, Mann said.

In the Know: Walk-offs at state supported living centers

Officials with the Texas Health and Human Services tally residents’ “unauthorized departures” at each of the state supported living centers. The walk-offs often happen in plain sight, and staff members usually accompany residents when they do walk off. For those times a resident walks off unaccompanied, they generally are returned to campus within four hours. The following from THHS shows the number of residents, staff and walk-offs at each state supported living center:

Center Residents Staff FY2014 FY2015 FY2016 FY2017 FY2018 FY2019 (through June)
Abilene 286 1,430 6 5 9 15 5 5
Austin 182 1,192 6 1 1 0 7 17
Brenham 264 1,067 1 1 0 5 9 7
Corpus Christi 209 927 15 14 12 17 11 10
Denton 446 1,727 10 5 3 1 6 4
El Paso 97 465 0 65 37 47 15 17
Lubbock 185 848 18 5 4 8 12 4
Lufkin 296 1,200 5 13 14 3 11 3
Mexia 242 1,516 15 10 26 27 19 14
Richmond 320 1,314 22 21 8 7 23 32
Rio Grande n/a 15 11 4 1 1 5
San Angelo 214 950 19 35 12 6 9 14
San Antonio 224 829 18 17 13 16 12 11

Of the 63 known times the El Paso center logged an “unauthorized departure,” a staff member accompanied the residents on their walk 62 of those times, Mann said.

In all, 60 percent of the time a resident has walked off a state center campus in the past nine months, a staff member was with them, Mann said. On average, there are about 4.5 staff members for every resident in state supported living centers.

In four of the cases, the unauthorized departure was attributed to a home visit.

The 55 times that residents walked away unaccompanied between last October and June of this year, they were located within four hours of when they were first reported missing, Mann said.

The Denton incident remains a concern for Angela Reynolds-Biggs, whose daughter, Amber Reynolds, lives there.

“A lot can happen in an hour, on or off campus,” Reynolds-Biggs said.

Denton has seen a very low proportion of walk-offs over the past five years compared to other centers. The population of the Denton center has hovered around 450 people over the past five years, and the center has reported 10 or fewer walk-offs each year since 2014. There was only one walk-off reported in 2017.

The El Paso State Supported Living Center, by comparison, has reported from 15 to 65 walk-offs per year over the past five years. Currently, 97 people live at the center.

State supported living centers collect a lot of data on the residents and their care, in part because federal monitoring teams visit every state supported living center in Texas two times per year.

The independent monitoring began 10 years ago. In 2008, news reports revealed a “fight club” at the Corpus Christi center. Caregivers had pushed residents into fighting with each other and took videos for their amusement. Federal investigators stepped in and found some residents were exploited, neglected or abused. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state under civil rights statutes. State officials agreed to independent monitoring under the supervision of a federal judge as part of a settlement agreement that was to last five years.

Centers improved in their standards of care, but not enough to end the federal supervision at the five-year mark.

In 2014, state officials began talks to close and consolidate the facilities, citing rising costs to meet those standards. However, those talks appear to have gone nowhere, even though the cost of care per resident has risen 61% in nine years, from $12,328 in 2010 to $19,840 in 2019.

Texas has more large-scale residential institutions than any other state and has not closed any since 1996, although the number of people living in those centers has dropped by half. None of the centers can close without legislative authority, Mann said.

Supporters, including the families of some residents, say the centers offer a safe, appropriate place to live. Those supporters, along with public employees’ unions, lobbied against closing and consolidating facilities in 2015 and again in 2017. Introduced in 2019, House Bill 3080 proposed closing only the Austin State Supported Living Center, but it died in committee without a hearing.

State Sen. Jane Nelson’s staff said she was traveling this week and unavailable to answer questions about the apparent legislative standoff. Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees the state budget.

Critics say the state’s continued priority funding for the centers comes with other costs. There is no waiting list for people to live at the centers. But Texans who prefer low-cost, community-based living may have to wait years for services, according to the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, a state agency.

Currently, more than 10,000 Texans have been on a waiting list for home-based services for nine years or more.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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