Families call for change to visitor restrictions at state assisted living centers

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Stephanie Kirby remembers vividly the last time she visited her son at the state supported living center in Denton — it was March 12.

“I hugged him, kissed him goodbye, left him on the patio as he was drinking his chocolate milkshake,” she recalled. “Said, ‘See you later.’ And I didn’t see him later.”

As far as caregivers go, Kirby is as dedicated and involved as it gets.

But KXAN’s Investigative team has spoken with many families of residents in state institutions and nursing homes who are concerned for their loved ones’ well-being during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, stories of isolation and mental deterioration fill a book mailed to Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday.

The coalition of concerned families make up Texas Caregivers for Compromise, which is calling on the Governor to allow limited family visitation at these facilities, even if it’s just one designated family member.

The Governor’s executive order prohibiting visits also applies to the Denton State Supported Living Center, where Kirby drops off meals for her son at the front gate every Sunday.

She says she’s only been able to see him when he had to go to the hospital, twice this month. One of the trips was following a self-harming incident.

Petre Kirby, 28, has been living at the Denton State Supported Living Center for more than three years (Courtesy of Stephanie Kirby)

“He’s lost weight, he looks stressed, he looks anxious,” Kirby said. “A mom can see.”

Petre Kirby is 28 years-old but functions mentally like a three-year old, his mom tells us.

She says Petre is nonverbal and has been known to harm himself.

He’s among the 3,000 or so Texans with intellectual disabilities who live at the state’s 13 state supported living centers. One of the locations is a sprawling, 95-acre campus in Austin.

Kirby has written one letter to Gov. Abbott every day calling for limited visits. Thursday is day 133.

“I said: ‘Let Petre see me in the middle of a wide open field, let him just see that I still exist, that mom hasn’t abandoned him,” she said.

The Associate Commissioner of all state supported living centers emailed Kirby and reiterated the decision was up to the Governor.

“It is my understanding our Regulatory Division has developed some guidelines for review by the Governor’s Office,” the email reads. “I hope we hear something soon.”

But that was a month ago.

“There’s no way anyone could explain to him what happened, and why his mom vanished off the face of the earth and has never returned,” she told us.

Legislators speak up

As our team investigated, we learned of a new letter signed by 55 Texas Senators and Representatives, highlights the concerns about isolation of the most vulnerable Texans who are in state-run institutions.

The letter, sent to Health and Human Services Commissioner Phil Wilson and obtained by KXAN Thursday, asks for an immediate plan to allow limited family visits at assisted living centers.

It predominately refers to residents with memory and mental deficiencies who don’t understand their lockdown status.

“Many cannot understand a virtual visit, and simply look down the hall for their loved one when they hear their voice on an electronic device,” the letter reads.

It adds: “The consequences, as we are sure that you are aware, can be deadly. Hopeless depression and anxiety are quickly leading to failing physical health among these precious and vulnerable
people. We have already lost too many to these policies, and more are on the way.”

A spokesperson with Texas Health and Human Services tells us the agency would continue to explore ways to keep families in close contact with each other while the Governor’s order is in effect.

We understand the current policies have been difficult for many parents and guardians, as well as the people we serve, during this pandemic,” she said.

KXAN’s team has also reached out to Gov. Abbott’s office for the last three days, asking about visitation restrictions and when there could be any changes.

As of Thursday evening, KXAN has not heard back.

“COVID is not the only danger to our loved ones,” said Kirby. “There’s the mental damage, the emotional damage, the deterioration.”

“I’m not a visitor. I’m an essential part of his life. I’m his mom.”

KXAN’s Ben Friberg contributed to this report.

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