Assembly panel passes bill challenging Christie plan to return disabled to N.J.

By Susan Livio NJ Advance Media

TRENTON — A state Assembly panel Thursday approved a bill that would block the Christie administration’s controversial plan to uproot more than 500 people with developmental disabilities from out-of-state facilities to state-licensed group homes, which families say won’t be able to offer the medical care and supervision they need.

The legislature approved a measure last year that would have halted the entire “Return Home New Jersey” initiative, which was proposed to save the state money and move disabled citizens closer to their families. But Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed the bill, spelling out the specific changes he wanted in order to sign it into law. The proposal is part of the governor’s plan to rely less on institutional care and more on smaller community housing, such as group homes, which qualify for a larger share of federal aid.

The Assembly Human Services Committee approved a more narrow version of the failed legislation that would “grandfather” about 45 people who are the most medically fragile and whose safety would be the most at risk, according to their families.

“We need to make sure our most vulnerable are not sacrificed for savings, especially when it’s a minor savings that carry major consequences,” said Committee Chairwoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who sponsored the bill. “There may be some situations where returning an individual home is in their best interest, but there are also many circumstances where a transfer will cause a wholesale disruption to an individual’s life. These outstanding factors, as well as a family’s wishes, must all be weighed before the fate of each individual is determined.”

The committee heard testimony from a handful of weeping and frustrated parents whose adult children have lived for years at the Woods Services, a facility in Langhorne, Pa. The annual per person cost at Woods Services range from $75,920 to $351,616, plus any medical costs not covered by insurance, according to state Human Services spokeswoman Pam Ronan.

Sam Yip of Middlesex said he fears his 31-year-old son, Jeremy, who has a history of violent and disruptive behavior, would end up in jail if he is moved from Woods to a less-supervised, less-structured group home. The family placed Jeremy, who is diagnosed with autism, at Woods after he attacked his brother about a dozen years ago.

“We thought (taking him to Woods) was the worst thing a family could do. We found out it was the best thing we could do,” Yip said. “He is doing great. Outside of that facility, I fear he doesn’t stand a chance.”

Maureen Clark of Sparta said her daughter cannot walk, speak, feed herself or even roll over in bed. She has uncontrollable seizures and is prone to pneumonia.

“It’s amazing how much care she needs, and they dote on her,” Clark said, describing the staff at Woods. “I have affidavits from doctor that say it would be dangerous for her to be in a group home,” Clark said through tears. “We need a resolution quickly. Please don’t make her come back.”

People would be exempt from Return Home New Jersey if they have resided out-of-state for 20 or more years or 25 percent of their life, according to the bill. People who have lived at a facility for four or more years also could be exempt if they are deemed medically or “behaviorally” fragile. People who have received one-on-one care for the at least the last two years, or have suffered uncontrollable seizures at least once a week for the last two years, would be among those who qualify, the bill said.

The Department of Human Services has relocated 163 people back to community housing in New Jersey, Ronan said.