Susan K. Livio, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
When Jennifer Sullivan lived on a farm in New Hampshire for two years, the 26-year-old petite woman with autism hiked, worked in a bakery and tended to lambs and cows. She ate fruits and vegetables. She liked to socialize.
After four years in a group home in Bridgewater, Jennifer has developed cavities and gum disease because she binges on junk food and doesn't like to brush her teeth, according to her mother, Joan Sullivan of Rutherford. When she is not at work organizing shopping bags at a supermarket, Jennifer typically refuses to leave her bedroom. She hits herself when she is agitated, her mother said.
Joan Sullivan has pleaded with the Christie administration to let Jennifer return to Plowshare Farm in Greenfield, N.H. a community for people with developmental disabilities. But the administration won't do it -- even though Gov. Chris Christie signed a law last year that ended the policy that forced Jennifer's return.
Halting the "Return Home New Jersey" policy allowed 370 people with developmental and intellectual disabilities to remain in a home outside the state -- a victory for the dozens of families who convinced lawmakers the move would have been psychologically disruptive, and for some even medically risky.
Jennifer Sullivan is among the 170 the state transferred back from 2009 to 2015 when the policy was in effect. "Return Home" was created to save the state money and bring people closer to their families.
Yet, according to Plowshare's website, the program costs about $55,000 -- about one-third of what an average group home placement costs in New Jersey. And Sullivan said she would rather her daughter thrive several hours away than live closer to home not meeting her needs.
"She is in a reputable group home, but she is isolated, afraid of her housemates and staff and cannot go out the door alone, ride her bike or visit friends," Sullivan said during a recent visit to the century-old mansion that houses Morristown Unitarian Fellowship -- one of places she takes her daughter every week to keep her busy.
"She has no meaningful work," Sullivan continued. "She has no cultural or educational activities. She has regressed socially and behaviorally, and lost skills. She has become self abusive -- hits herself in the face. It's awful to watch when she is hurting herself."
State officials do not agree that Jennifer is regressing, according to emails between the state's department's Division of Developmental Disabilities and Sullivan's attorney Johanna Burke.
"The facts do not warrant placement out of state," according to a July 26, 2016 email from Carol Jones, the division's chief of staff. It's the same message repeated in a half-dozen emails since that time, even after a special education consultant Burke hired described Jennifer's living conditions as "no better than if she were on a ward in a state hospital."
A state spokeswoman declined to discuss the Sullivan case.
"Displeased families should work with their case managers and the Division to identify their concerns, to discuss their desires and then to explore potential, alternative placements that meet their assessed needs," said Human Services spokeswoman Nicole Brossoie. "New Jersey has a robust and diverse array of provider agencies that offer high quality, residential placements."
Brossoie said the law halting Return Home New Jersey applied only to people who had not been relocated before the state stopped the transfers in July 2015.
"The statute is applicable to certain individuals who were residing out of state at the time the bill was signed," Brossoie's statement said. "There is no provision allowing for clients living in-state at that time to be transferred out of state."
Burke said she knows that is untrue.
Burke represented Tyler Loftus, a 25-year-old man with autism and a serious mental illness whom the state sent back in November 2015 to Woods, residential facility in Pennsylvania where he had lived before his transfer.
Loftus had spent weeks in the hospital, as well as time locked up in the Hunterdon County jail in 2014 because group home operators could not control his aggressive behavior.
Jennifer Sullivan deserves the same consideration Tyler Loftus received, Burke said. Instead, state officials have sent her mother to tour 30 other group homes around the state. She turned them all down because her daughter needs more than a group home can offer, Burke said.
"They are blaming it on the mother," Burke said. "She is 70 and Jennifer's only living relative who wants to make sure her daughter is taken care of."
Two lawmakers who sponsored the law ending the Return Home policy said they were disappointed to learn the department won't send Jennifer back.
"The primary concern was for the people who were still out of state, but my impression was that everyone would keep an open mind," Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman said (R-Somerset). "I would advocate that if (a placement) was not working, New Jersey should let her go back."
Assemblywoman Valeri Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), also a bill sponsor, said acting Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly "had promised to work with individuals if the placement was not adequate. This was not to be a one-size-fits all."
"These failures and setbacks should be on the conscience of the department," said Huttle, who chairs the Assembly Human Services Committee.
The clash stems in part from New Jersey's approach to providing housing and other services for people with developmental disabilities.
Following the lead of the federal Medicaid program, the state favors small group homes over larger facilities that may isolate residents from the larger community. Gov. Chris Christie closed two institutions during his first term to reduce the number of people with disabilities who were "warehoused."
The number of group homes has grown from 987 at the beginning of Christie's term in 2010 to 1,409 today, Brossoie said.
The state also follows a strict "self-directed" philosophy that permits the disabled person to decide for herself which tasks and activities she wants to perform.
With these two policies at work, group home employees -- paid about $10 an hour and minimally trained -- allow Jennifer to skip showers, spend hours browsing through celebrity photos online and live a "couch potato" existence that pervades, Joan Sullivan said. She said has heard employees verbally abuse her daughter, and a witness came forward to say she was kicked.
"I have high standards because she was at Plowshare Farm," Sullivan said. "Other people don't realize how much better it could be or should be."
Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of Autism New Jersey, a family advocacy group, said all professionals in this field must balance a person's right to make choices and protecting that person from harm. But safety and long term well-being should always be the priority.
"If you completely let someone make their own choices, they may not make choices in their own best interest," Buchanan said. "They have a decision-making skills of a child."
Joan Sullivan said she won't stop challenging the state's decision because as Jennifer's mother and legal guardian, she said she knows what's best for her.
"They can't prove she has not regressed," Sullivan said of state officials. "They did not know her before."