Friday, June 5th, 2009

Now for almost a year, Evelyn Melendez received more than a dozen letters from a state agency detailing allegations of abuse and neglect of her daughter, a resident at a state school for the mentally disabled.

This month, yet another letter informed her of an allegation of neglect — this time in her 15-year-old daughter’s death.

Sarai Melendez committed suicide May 10 at the San Angelo State School, according to medical examiners. An autopsy report says Sarai hanged herself with shoelaces.

“They told me that (Sarai) was on a 15-minute watch,” she said. “If she was being watched every 15 minutes, why did she have shoelaces?”

She added, “Did she hang herself for real? She had bruises on her forehead, legs, and cheeks. These are questions I ask, why she had bruises. Nobody has an answer.”

In December, a U.S. Justice Department investigation found widespread abuse and neglect in the state’s 13 residential treatment facilities for people with developmental disabilities.

The investigation found the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, known as DADS, failed to protect the schools’ nearly 5,000 residents from harm.

Sarai had a troubled past. At 6, she began hearing voices. Violent rages followed, and about five years ago she tried to hang herself with a radio cord, her mother said.

Sarai, who suffered from bipolar disorder and mild mental retardation, was charged with assault in 2007 after punching a boy in the head. Late that year, a San Antonio Express-News report traced her journey through the criminal justice system, culminating with Sarai’s admittance to the San Angelo State School in January 2008.

The first allegation of abuse occurred four months later. According to a DADS letter sent to Evelyn Melendez, a rumor was circulating that staff members had bribed people to assault other employees who had reported them to an abuse hot line.

It’s unclear how Sarai was involved in the incident. The letter said the alleged perpetrators were banned from the campus.

About a week later, Sarai logged two complaints to school officials.

In the first, she said staff members had hit her. Officials couldn’t confirm the allegation.

In the second, Sarai said a staff member had abused her. Later, she said another employee had told her they “were going to pay Sarai back for telling on them,” and she “was going to get it worse.” A DADS letter to Evelyn Melendez stated her daughter was worried and couldn’t sleep.

Officials deemed that allegation inconclusive.