For months, a mother has been banned from being with her son with special needs, due to a statewide mandate barring visitation. With his condition deteriorating, his mom is begging Gov. Greg Abbott daily to act, and a coalition of Texas state senators and state representatives have joined her cause.
Stephanie Kirby is very worried about her son, Petre. On the day Texas Scorecard spoke with her, she hadn’t seen him in 127 days.
“I am afraid I’ll never see him again,” she told us.
Petre Kirby is 28 years old physically, but 3 years old mentally and part of a community of Americans who are working through some very unique challenges.
“They call it ID: intellectually disabled,” Stephanie told Texas Scorecard. “He’s very autistic-like, but self-injurious behavior is a major concern.”
He was abandoned as a child, but Stephanie found him, loved him, and adopted him as her own.
Stephanie tried every means possible and enlisted the help of various agencies to keep Petre at home. Unfortunately, his self-injurious behavior was such that it required 24/7 care she couldn’t provide alone, so she enrolled Petre at the Denton State Supported Living Center, where he’s been for the past three years.
“During that time, I see him several times a week,” she said. “Each and every week, without fail. I’m a huge part of his life over there.”
That was before the Chinese coronavirus and the accompanying government mandates went into effect.
“I left there on March 12,” she recalled. “I had brought [Petre] a chocolate milkshake, and fixed his room, and did all the normal ‘mom things.’ When I left, he was sitting on the patio with his staff, drinking the chocolate milkshake. I hugged him and kissed him and said, ‘Bye, Petre. See you tomorrow.’”
But Stephanie didn’t get to see her son the next day.
“On March 13, I got a call from the facility saying that the governor imposed the visitation restrictions and that we were no longer allowed on campus,” Stephanie said.
Families weren’t the only ones banned by the governor’s mandate. People living at the facility had many of their daily activities banned as well; activities such as gym visits, trips, and even the residents’ jobs were shut down.
They are now isolated in their rooms.
“Not only did they take their family and legal guardian away, they took their life away,” said Stephanie. “There is nothing for them to do.”
At first, she and families like hers decided to wait and see what would happen—months later, she’s still banned from being with her son. The only way she’s been able to interact with him is through FaceTime video calls. But digital interaction is nothing compared to in-person human interaction and touch.
“He doesn’t understand the concept,” Stephanie said when describing the first time she used FaceTime to communicate. “He started screaming and yelling and crying, and looking out the door for me, and looking around the room for me. And [he] started hurting himself because he didn’t understand why he was hearing my voice and couldn’t find me. It was horrible.”
His reactions have improved as they continue to FaceTime, but Stephanie said Petre still cries sometimes.
“He does not look good,” she said. “He’s lost weight. He’s 6 feet tall, and on the best of days, he’s 120 pounds. Eating is a huge problem.”
“He looks stressed. He looks anxious. He doesn’t comprehend, and that’s the worst pain. If he could understand what was happening, it wouldn’t be so bad—but he can’t.”
“And the worst part is, he’s already diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” she added. “He was severely abused and neglected in the first five years of his life. I adopted him when he was 6. So, for all he knows, I was just like his birth mother and abandoned him.”
Stephanie stresses that the problem isn’t the staff at the Denton State Supported Living Center, for she considers them part of her family.
“The staff is doing the very best job they can under the circumstances,” she said. She described how many of them are working double shifts to serve all of the people living in their community who are also cut off from their families.
“This is directly on the governing officials, not on the staff in the state-supported living center.”
She’s not asking for all restrictions to end, either.
“I’m not saying just open the floodgates and let everybody in,” Stephanie said. “Appoint one essential family member. Let us be screened, just like an employee, and go in there.”
It’s important to note that despite the governor’s ban, there have still been cases of the coronavirus at the Denton facility.
“Keeping families out has not kept COVID out,” Stephanie said.
In a desperate need for help, she’s taken her case to her elected representatives.
“I’ve written the governor a bazillion times, called a bazillion times. Everyone from my state representative, all the way in between,” Stephanie said.
Only her state representative, Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), personally reached out to her.
“He was touched by [my email] and actually talked to me on the phone a week and a half ago for 30 minutes, saying he agreed this was terrible,” she said. “He said he was going to be more assertive in advocating anything he can do to the governor to support our plight, if you will, to get access.”
On July 23, Sanford published a letter asking the commissioner of Texas’ Department of Health and Human Services to “immediately move forward and put a plan into action to allow limited family visitations inside their facilities.” The letter is signed by 52 members of the Texas Legislature.
But Stephanie has yet to see or hear anything from the one who issued the ban: Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Out of all the news conferences Abbott does, that I know of, we have never been mentioned,” she said. “Ever.”
“What is the plan for us? [It’s] like we’re totally forgotten. Did our loved ones have no worth?”
When asked what she would say to Abbott right now, she replied:
“These are human beings. They have feelings. They have lives. They’re just like everybody else. Why have we isolated them and taken every single thing they have away from them? Everything—especially their families.”
She does a daily update of her son’s struggle on Facebook, publicly pleading for Abbott to help. Other families going through similar trials have thanked her for exposing their struggles.
When asked how much longer she thinks her son can go on, Stephanie replied, “I mean, at what point does the emotional and mental damage [become] more dangerous than COVID? All of them are suffering because most of them can’t comprehend what’s going on.”
If you or anyone you know has had a similar experience from government mandates in response to the coronavirus, we’d like to hear from you. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.