Justice for Rebekah
We are a family reaching out because of a profound concern for the injustices perpetrated on the autistic and mentally disabled in the State of Texas.
While under the care of the Sean Ashley House in Houston, Texas, on July 23, 2013, our loved one, Rebekah Harkins, a 56-year-old mentally disabled woman, was incapacitated and left in a hot van for over five hours. Caregivers were only yards away the entire time. They even went in and out of the van multiple times during those hours. No one effectively took role of the disabled adults there that day. She was found with head trauma, clinging to life on the floor of the van at the end of the day by other disabled adults. She was rushed to the hospital. She did not regain consciousness for several days. Her organs never completely regained functionality, and she succumbed to her injuries on August 30, 2013. She suffered immensely. The Sean Ashley House is still in operation.
Rebekah was a life-long citizen of Texas. Though she could not speak, she freely showed affection, happiness, and love. She laughed, skipped, and expressed her joy every day of her life. She was the best among us, the most pure and beautiful a heart and spirit as a human being can have—a perpetual child, she was innocence and wonder; she was the source of and our reason for unending and unconditional love, and she is why we are choosing to fight. Someone had to be a voice for Rebekah while she was alive. Now, someone must be a voice for Rebekah in her death.
It is our belief that the laws, as they stand today, by limiting wrongful death lawsuits to children, spouses, or parents are discriminatory toward a very large group of mentally disabled citizens of Texas. In many cases as the mentally disabled individuals age, they will outlive their parents and seldom do they have spouses or children. Therefore, because every disabled person has a legal guardian, it is our assertion that the legal guardian should have the ability to file a wrongful death suit on that individual’s behalf.
Over the past fifty years, many laws have been enacted in an effort to protect and provide justice for vulnerable persons. The State of Texas has laws and agencies in place, such as MHMRA and Adult Protective Services, to aid in their care and protection. These state agencies are supposed to monitor the facilities that house and care for disabled adults. However, with the current wrongful death limitations being what they are, if these citizens are killed due to negligence or murder, in many ways, the state’s protection ceases. There is little accountability for facilities or individuals who kill disabled adults. Because current laws severely limit the individuals who can file a wrongful death suit on behalf of a mentally disabled person, the only recourse available to a guardian or family of a disabled person who is killed, in some cases only, is a medical malpractice suit that is capped at $250, 000. The facilities are insured by companies, who pay the $250,000, at best case, and are allowed to continue functioning without any further accountability, whatsoever.
“In cases of vulnerable adults without statutory heirs, the message to caregivers seems to be that fatal negligence is preferable to mere injury." (Schumacher v. Williams III, Court of Appeals, WA, 2001)
In spite of the fact that Rebekah had several family members who had been involved with, supported, and loved her throughout her life, and in spite of the fact that her mother, Glenda Rose Mason, before she died, appointed one of Rebekah’s sisters as her guardian, there is no one left alive who is able to bring a wrongful death lawsuit against her alleged killers.
The State of Texas has made many changes in recent decades that helped Rebekah and those like her with the ability to attend public schools and to ensure that their medical needs were met. Tragically, however, it is our belief that the laws in Texas, prevent facilities, like Sean Ashley House, from any significant accountability, therefore, contributing to deaths like Rebekah’s. Despite the horrific and painful circumstances of her death, it is likely that those responsible will escape without any criminal or civil consequences or, at best, with a slap on the wrist. However, a simple change in state law could give her family the right to seek justice in Texas courts on her behalf and would, therefore, lessen the likelihood of this injustice happening to other autistic and mentally disabled people.
We are calling upon any persons, attorneys, or legislators who recognize this injustice, who agree that the laws need to be changed, and who are willing to work with us, for Rebekah, and for individuals like her, to do what they can to help enact change and ensure justice.
Help, suggestions, and comments are encouraged and welcomed.