TRENTON — The Christie administration would have to stop relocating people with developmental disabilities who now live in state institutions and suspend transfers of others from out-of-state facilities back to New Jersey until their safety and well-being are evaluated, under a bill that passed the state Assembly Monday.
But time is short and the bill’s future is uncertain. The Department of Human Services has already relocated 183 residents from the North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa this year, emptying it in anticipation of closing it next week. The state has also transferred 83 residents this year from the Woodbridge Developmental Center, which is scheduled to close by the end of the year.
And the bill (A1110) needs the support of the Senate, and Gov. Chris Christie, who says the state should rely less on large institutions and more on smaller, community housing for people with disabilities.
Monday’s Assembly vote thrilled families who have challenged the administration’s Returning Home New Jersey initiative, which calls for 470 people living in out-of-state facilities to move back to the state at a savings of $21 million. But families say the plan disrupts their loved ones’ lives and jeopardizes the safety of medically fragile people who have lived out of state for decades.
"The fight has just begun!" Bob and Judy McCabe of Branchburg, whose daughter, Ellen has lived at Woods in Langhorne, Pa for three decades, wrote in an email following the 62-10 vote. Their 44-year-old daughter has several medical issues and limited communication skills, and requires constant supervision from people familiar with her habits and needs, according to the McCabes, who were featured in a Star-Ledger report last month.
"Now we go to the Senate for a vote and then pray Christie doesn’t veto" it, the McCabe’s email said.
"We’re very excited, but scared about the next step," said Maureen Clark, 71, of Sparta, whose 47-year-old daughter, Maura, is severely disabled with a seizure disorder, and has lived at Woods for 35 years. "Nobody understands the care they need," Clark said, her voice breaking. "Yesterday, Maura was having seizures all day. If she was in a group home they’d be shipping her to a hospital every day and she’d never wake up."
The bill would impose a moratorium on all placements and transfers for six months while Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez conducts "a comprehensive evaluation" determining whether people already transferred are safe and getting appropriate care.
The review would include an investigation into "any deaths or reports of serious bodily injury of individuals with developmental disabilities residing in a developmental center or transferred to a new residential placement during the implementation of an impending closure." The commissioner would have to submit a report within six months.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vanieri Huttle (D-Bergen) introduced a version of the bill last year following the death of Maureen Doran, 68, who had lived at the Woodbridge Developmental Center for 17 years. In a report in The Star-Ledger, Doran’s sisters and co-guardians contend the state’s decision in July 2012 to close Woodbridge led to a flurry of resident transfers and staff reassignments and created a chaotic environment in which safety and supervision has declined, allowing Doran to be assaulted by a cottage mate and badly injured from a fall.
The state is also investigating the choking deaths of two former North Jersey Developmental Center residents who had transferred to group homes earlier this year, Human Services spokeswoman Pam Ronan said.
"We need to protect our state’s most vulnerable and make sure patient care is not disrupted or mishandled," Huttle said. "A comprehensive and transparent evaluation of the closure process will help to ensure that there are no more tragedies like the ones that have been reported. A moratorium is needed to make sure that every resident is safely and appropriately cared for."
Joanne St. Amand, president of the Woodbridge Developmental Center Parent’s Association, said the group is "grateful to the Assembly for realizing that movement from the centers is happening too quickly to assure safety."
Human Services officials say they have carefully devised plans to move back out-of-state residents that are tailored to their needs. They also defended their handling of the developmental centers, noting they have gotten approval of the family, legal guardian, the resident, and the resident’s treatment team.