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Looming State School Closure Leaves Austin's Most Vulnerable in Limbo

Eviction notices have gone out to 77 people who live at Austin's State Supported Living Center on 35th Street and MoPac. The state’s Sunset Advisory Commission has recommended closing the facility which opened in 1917 and services 28 counties in Central Texas.

All of the people who live at the center have serious developmental disabilities, and a handful have already moved out.

As the eviction notices come in, residents and their families are searching for new housing alternatives as the state prepares for a likely sale that could turn the 94-acre property into a mixed-use development. But some say the commission doesn’t have the final word in the facility’s closure, and promise to fight.

Back in 1972, Judi Stonedale had only been married for a few months when she found out she was expecting. She was 23 years old and thrilled.

She was working as a waitress and, while she and her partner had no money, they had big dreams for their baby.

Stonedale says she diligently visited her doctor, exercised and took her vitamins. But, something about her pregnancy seemed to be off.

“I did suspect there was a problem. I don't remember how far along I was -- because she wasn't moving,” she says.

The big day arrived. Julie Isbell was born August 3, 1972. That day, Stonedale learned many of the big dreams she had for her little girl would never be.

Julie was born with a host of developmental disabilities. She is mobile – she can crawl – but she can't walk and she can't talk. At 42 years old, Julie’s mind is like a small child's. Today, she lives at Austin's State Supported Living Center and Stonedale visits her daughter at least once a week.

Stonedale is now a psychiatrist and she used to work here, which gave her easy access to her daughter as well as an insight into what goes on at the center.

“There are people who work here who have worked here for 20 to 30 years. They know the clients. They care about the clients. They treat them like family. They feel like their family. Unfortunately, we've had a lot of turnover lately. You know?” she says. “It's kind of hard to go to work for a place where you are being told is closing down.”

Credit Filipa Rodrigues for KUT
Gearing up to a rally, legal guardians created signs with pictures of their loved ones denouncing the evictions.

However, Austin's State Supported Living Center is not officially closing down, but a series of events has led many to believe the center's doors are closing.

First came the eviction notices earlier this year. Then came a recommendation to close the center from the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission, suggesting to close the center by August 21, 2017.  The commission consists of state legislators that evaluate the performance of state agencies. If agencies are performing well, they continue to receive state funding. If they are not, they get reformed, or axed. Since its inception, the Sunset Commission has abolished 37 agencies.

“Closure , under the circumstances, probably results in a failure,” says State Sen. Kirk Watson. “But, what they've done is they've failed to pay attention to the human beings, the people we are supposed to be serving.”  

Few other closure recommendations have panicked a community like this one has. It was devastating news for many of the 270 families whose children live at Austin's State Supported Living Center. Attorney Steve Wallace's son lives there, and he says many people don’t understand the commission’s decision isn’t necessarily legally binding.

“That hadn't been approved. That talking point is designed for people who don’t know how legislative action works – [if the] Sunset Committee voted on it, it means it's a done deal. No, it's not."

Watson agrees that it’s not a done deal. The legislature would have to order the closure when they convene in January.

“The session is almost here. I'm going to be offering alternatives to what we can do and to what that report says,” Watson says. “And hopefully we'll have a legitimate, thorough and long overdue debate.”

Credit Filipa Rodrigues for KUT
Dr. Judi Stonedale used to work at ASSLC. This summer she left. She was asked not to advocate for the center. She says that's something she can't do.

In the meantime, residents are being asked to leave the center.

The Department of Aging and Disability (DADS) says the notices of eviction have nothing to do with the sunset commission's recommendation.

“We started looking at this about two years ago,” says Melissa Gale, a DADS spokesperson. “In order to bring Austin into a more manageable size, we determined that we were going to start downsizing, transitioning residents into the community.”

The DADS offices are across the street from the Triangle – a mixed-use development with posh little stores and restaurants. That used to be state land, part of the old state hospital.

During the Sunset Advisory Commission’s hearing in August, Sen. Hinojosa hinted that may be the future of Austin's State Supported Living Center.

“We have a modification that would require all net proceeds on the sale or lease of the Austin State Supported Living Center to be dedicated to people with intellectual development disabilities,” he said.

The sale of the property would mean a clean slate for 93 acres of land in Tarrytown, prime real estate.

Most parents of people at the living center say they could care less about the land. What worries them is their children's wellbeing.

Judi Stonedale says the push now is to incorporate everyone into the community – a setting that doesn't suit her daughter Julie.

“Julie can't say someone's hurting me,” she says. “She can't protect herself"

Stonedale fears for her daughter's safety because she's tried private group homes three times before, and every time something went wrong. Once, her daughter almost overdosed on her seizure medication. Then, she was neglected. But the last straw came when Stonedale got a call from an emergency room in Dallas.

“And [a doctor] told me that she had been burned, severely burned. She had big chunks of hair pulled out,” she says. “She was balled into the fetal position and wouldn't come out and that's not Julie. She's friendly. She's happy."

Julie's chest and left arm still bear the scar tissue from that night. The employee at the facility who was responsible was fired but nothing else happened. It took Julie six months to get out of the fetal position. Stonedale says she's haunted by the screams of her daughter – every time her burned skin would be removed in order for new skin to come in.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues for KUT
Debra and Steve Wallace are the parents of Justin Wallace who is severely autistic. They say they will fight his eviction with tooth and nail. The state has hinted it will sell the land where the ASSLC is located. The money is supposed to go to mental health centers.

Stonedale calls Julie a "perfect victim" – someone who can’t talk and whose mind can't help her communicate in other ways.

“We managed to get her back here at the Austin State Supported Living Center. It is not perfect but it is far and above the care that they get in the group home,” she says.

There's a swimming pool here where Julie can go to help her muscles relax; there’s a library; Julie is cared for 24 hours a day by a team of doctors, nurses and nurse assistants; and there are cameras. It would be next to impossible to find that elsewhere.

More than 90 percent of community homes are for-profit and the state has little oversight over them.
This summer, Stonedale left her job at Austin's State Supported Living Center. She was asked to not speak about the center in public, but she says that's something she can't do.

“I'm an advocate for the school, and for the people who work here, and for the people who live here and for the good care that these people get,” she says; care that she fears cannot be replicated anywhere else.

Stonedale and her daughter are now in limbo. Julie has yet to receive her eviction notice, but, she says, she can see the writing on the wall. The center was recently rezoned ahead of the likely sale, but the state's been pushing to rezone the land since 2007. Then-Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson requested Austin Mayor Will Wynn rezone it, "to maximize the value of State owned land."

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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