Bill to track former developmental center residents advances

By Suzanne Russel My Central Jersey

The Senate Budget Committee this week passed a bill aimed at tracking the progress of former state developmental center residents who have been moved to group homes due to the recent closing of two state facilities.

The bill, which was passed by the full Assembly last year, would require the state Department of Human Services to conduct follow up studies for five years to assess the well being of former residents of the Woodbridge Developmental Center in the Avenel section of Woodbridge and the North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa.

Under the bill, all individuals who were transitioned from the developmental centers after Aug. 1, 2012 and have lived away from the state facilities for at least six months would be evaluated. The Aug. 1 2012 date relates to around the time a state task force recommended closing the Woodbridge and Totowa facilities.

Additional assessments would be conducted for each of the five years after the closure of each center. The Woodbridge Developmental Center closed Jan. 1, 2015 and the North Jersey Developmental Center closed July 1, 2014.

Support from families

The bill's passage was applauded by members of Save Residents Homes at Developmental Centers, a coalition of families, friends and caregivers of residents of New Jersey Developmental Centers. Families will continue to seek full passage and implementation of the legislation.

"More than 650 people were moved out of North Jersey and Woodbridge Developmental Centers in the last two years. This is large-scale movement. These are all fragile people. We have received no assurance from DHS (the state Department of Human Services) that there really exist sufficient group homes with well-trained staff ready to accept these people and ensure their well-being," said Cindy Bartman, president of the Association for Hunterdon Developmental Center in Clinton.

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The bill is sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-37th District , Assemblyman Tim Eustace, D-38th District, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr., D-18th District and Thomas Giblin, D-34th District. Bartman testified before the Senate panel representing families of developmentally disabled residents across the state.

"North Jersey and Woodbridge Developmental Centers provided access to the special resources their residents needed while also giving their families the ability to visit and provide all-important emotional support," said Vainieri Huttle, adding: "Ideally for the benefit of the residents and their loved ones we would have kept these facilities open. However given the administrations decision to close them, it is now our duty to make sure that their former residents have the care and opportunities they need and deserve, which is why this bill is so important."

When the Task Force on the Closure of Developmental Centers made a binding recommendation in July 2012 to close the Woodbridge and Totowa facilities, there were 333 residents living at the Woodbridge site, 196 men and 137 women.

Movement to group homes

Since then, 83 have moved into community homes and 236 moved to other developmental centers: 25 to the Green Brook Regional Center in Green Brook, 18 to the Hunterdon Developmental Center in Clinton, 43 to the New Lisbon Developmental Center in Burlington County, 76 to the Vineland Developmental Center in Cumberland County, and 74 to the Woodbine Developmental Center in Cape May County.

Two Woodbridge Developmental Center residents were admitted to nursing home facilities, and two residents were moved by their families to different states. In addition, 10 people died while at the developmental centers, state officials have said.

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"These state developmental centers provided outstanding care in our communities, and it's unfortunate that their residents have been displaced in this way," Diegnan said. "This legislation is a declaration that we understand and take very seriously our responsibility to safeguard the overall health and happiness of New Jersey residents with developmental disabilities."

Bartman said there have been problems across the country when residents have been moved out of developmental centers into community settings. She said an investigation by the federal Department of Health and Human Services has been started in Connecticut.

She said community providers are not held to the same federally mandated standard of care as developmental centers. The centers require training of staff members and specific reporting requirements. The same level of training and reporting is not required in community settings.

The state Department of Human Service studies would examine data related to an individual's ability to maintain the same level of services and supports provided prior to leaving the developmental center, behavioral changes, contact with family members and peers and competence in the areas of cognition, self care and mobility.

Under the bill, the department would be required to submit a report of the follow-up study to the governor and legislature one year after passage, and then for the next five years. The reports would be posted on the state Department of Human Services website.

Staff Writer Suzanne Russell: 732-565-7335: srussell@mycentraljersey.com