Bipartisan Bill to Make Sure “Return Home NJ” Program is Compassionate and Pragmatic Gets Assembly Panel OK

Vainieri Huttle, Lampitt, Garcia, Eustace & Mosquera Bill Will Ensure Individuals with Disabilities Aren't Transferred Home Against their Will

An Assembly panel on Thursday approved legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Pamela Lampitt, Carmelo G. Garcia, Tim Eustace and Gabriela Mosquera to ensure that individuals with disabilities living in out-of-state facilities are not transferred home under the "Return Home New Jersey" program to the detriment of their well-being.

"We need to make sure our most vulnerable are not sacrificed for savings, especially when it's minor savings that carry major consequences," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "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 legislation was proposed after Governor Christie conditionally vetoed an earlier measure (S-2249) sponsored by Vainieri Huttle. That bill would have imposed a moratorium on the "Return Home New Jersey" initiative until a plan was drafted to ensure comparable services would be offered to individuals in state and would have allowed anyone placed out of state 10 years ago or more to remain in their homes.

"While certain individuals may thrive in less restrictive settings, others rely on a controlled environment for continuity and comfort, depending on their individual circumstances," said Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington). "This measure will help ensure that individuals aren't misguidedly transferred back to New Jersey, to the detriment of their well being, like we saw in the well-documented case of Tyler Loftus."

The bill (A-3975) would prohibit the state Division of Developmental Disabilities from transferring, or compelling the transfer of, an individual with a developmental disability who is currently residing in an out-of-state placement to a residential placement in New Jersey, under the Return Home New Jersey initiative, or a similar program, if the individual or the guardian of the individual objects to such a transfer in writing, and if one or more of the conditions described below exists.

"Given the vastly different circumstances each person is dealing with, we can't apply a one-size-fits-all approach to serving individuals with disabilities," said Garcia (D-Hudson). "In certain cases, a routine, stable environment is critical to a person's advancement. Disrupting this environment would shatter the security they've become accustomed to and facilitate a regression. This bill will help put precautions in place to avoid that." 

The first condition would "grandfather in" certain individuals if they have resided out-of-state for 20 or more years or 25 percent of their life.

Other conditions provide for preventing the transfer of individuals with developmental disabilities who are medically fragile, behaviorally fragile, or related to certain persons residing in close proximity, as follows:

- The individual has resided out-of-state for at least four years, and the individual: 
1) has received one-to-one care during the individual's waking hours for at least the last two years; 
2) has suffered uncontrolled seizures one or more times during a week, on average; 
3) has been hospitalized overnight three or more times a year, on average, for the last two years; or 
4) has been, or is in the process of being, admitted to hospice.

- The individual with a developmental disability has resided out-of-state for at least four years and has required personal restraint by two or more caregivers 20 or more times a year, on average, for the last two years; or

- The primary residence of two or more ancestral or collateral family members of the individual is, on the effective date of the bill, within a 15-mile radius of the current out-of-state residential placement of the individual.

"While the name of the program might have a feel-good connotation, many of the stories we've heard thus far have been about 'Return Home New Jersey' providing the very least to people in order to cut costs," said Eustace (D-Bergen/Passaic). "The bottom line should be protecting the individual's best interests. If remaining out-of-state is better for their well being, then they should not be transferred home against their family's wishes."

"This measure would combine compassion and pragmatism to a very critical decision-making process," said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester). "In many cases, we're talking about individuals with both developmental disabilities and mental health issues who simply can't thrive in a group home the way others might. We need to make sure their care plan takes into account their individual needs, not merely the state's bottom line."

In determining if an individual should be transferred back to New Jersey, the bill also takes into account various funding conditions, including whether the out-of-state placement is funded, in part, by various federal programs or whether the out-of-state placement is less than or equal to the cost of in-state placement. 

The measure was approved by the Assembly Human Services Committee, which is chaired by Vainieri Huttle.