It’s been two months since she’s seen her son, Petre.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” Kirby said.
Since March 16, state officials have essentially barred visitors to the center, home to 440 individuals with developmental disabilities. The lockdown came shortly after Denton paramedics transported a resident suspected of having COVID-19 to a hospital and the city sounded the alarm with state officials. Eventually, 54 residents tested positive for the virus. One resident died from the virus last week.
Kirby used to visit Petre several times a week, making the drive from her home in Celina where she also runs her glass business. She would clip his nails and clean his ears. She would give him new shoestrings — his only toy — and take home the old ones to wash. She would bring him food for his freezer and snacks for his cupboard.
On Mother’s Day, she stopped at Sonic a block away from the center and picked up a cheeseburger, Tater Tots and an orange slush. She handed it off to a staff member to take to Petre.
“I pray he realized it was from his mom,” Kirby said.
Kirby adopted Petre after his birth mother abandoned him when he was 3 years old. She worries Petre may think he has been abandoned again.
Petre, 28, arrived at the center nearly four years ago in an emergency move. At the time, Petre had spiraled down with suspected seizures that undid years of growth and progress.
The seizure-like episodes ended, but the self-injurious behaviors he developed during those episodes did not.
“The year before this happened, we took a vacation at Yellowstone,” Kirby said. “We went to the beach every summer.”
Kirby said she understands why state officials have limited contact inside the center. Not all of the center’s residents are young and strong like Petre. Some of the center’s residents are older or medically fragile. Their families may not want the risk of infection that comes with visitors.
Center spokeswoman Christine Mann said officials understand how important it is for families to be able to communicate. Mann works for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in Austin, which oversees the operations of the Denton State Supported Living Center and the 12 other centers like it around the state.
“We’ve increased the use of videoconferencing and worked to add phone lines while increasing the frequency of our updates to loved ones, whether by phone, video chat, email or standard mail,” Mann said. “For the holiday, many residents made Mother’s Day cards for their families. We assisted many residents with phone calls or FaceTime to connect them with their families on Mother’s Day.”
In addition, staff members provide up-to-date information to families about residents in their care, Mann said.
“We’re continuing to explore ways we can keep families, guardians and residents in close contact as this situation evolves,” Mann added.
Kirby calls Petre’s direct care staff for updates twice a day. She has tried talking to Petre using FaceTime, a video chatting app.
The first time she called on FaceTime, he was confused by the sound of his mother’s voice. The staff told her that he looked for her in the doorway and in the hallway. The next few times she called, they seemed to connect for a moment. But on the latest call, Petre started screaming and trying to hurt himself, so they hung up.
“He didn’t understand how to look at the phone,” she said.
The upshot is, not everyone can stay connected through video chats, she added.
Her goal has always been to get Petre back home with her in Celina. Sometimes she lingers at the gate, like she did Sunday, on the chance that she’ll see him walking on the grounds.
“I never thought in a million years that two months would go by without seeing him,” she said.
Kirby sees how the center’s 1,400 employees come and go (they are screened for COVID-19 symptoms at the gate). But there’s been no conversation with center officials about how to keep the center’s families together, especially when the residents, like Petre, have tested negative for the virus.
In Kirby’s case, seeing Petre in person also helps fulfill her oversight role as his legal guardian. For example, she has documented injuries he had that otherwise went unreported, she said.
The center also has a 189-acre campus with plenty of space outdoors for families to meet for a picnic or other get-togethers and still maintain a proper distance from others.
“I’m not asking to come into any building,” Kirby said.
What she really is asking, she said, is: “How does one person get the governor to talk about it?”
The governor’s order barring visits to individuals living in state institutions remains in place, Mann said.
Kirby may understand why the two are being kept apart, but Petre doesn’t.
“That’s what keeps me up at night,” she said.
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Denton State Supported Living Center families kept apart for two months, counting