JEFF EDELSTEIN: Chris Christie caves on plan to displace 470 severely disabled New Jersey residents

By Jeff Edelstein The Trentonian

Susan Henoch said she was “shocked.”

She was sitting in a closed door meeting last week with Gov. Chris Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney and assorted other bigwigs. She was there, along with other parents and caretakers, to discuss the disastrous Return Home New Jersey program, which I’ve written about plenty in this space. A very quick recap: About 470 severely disabled adults were placed at out-of-state facilities by the state, some as long as 50 years ago, all because the state couldn’t care for them. They went to places that could do the job. Now, in a obvious money grab, Christie and his administration decided to implement a program that would force these people back into the state and into group homes. At best, this would cause tremendous upset to the disabled individuals and their families. At worst, it would kill the disabled people. That’s not hyperbole; the families were very concerned about moving their loved ones from places with round-the-clock medical care to places where there was zero by way of doctors.

This fight has been going on for years now. The legislature eventually sided with the families, passing a bill, near unanimously, to end the program. Christie vetoed it. I called him “heartless.”

And it all led up to Henoch’s shocking moment.

“I was told it was an informational meeting. We were only given three days notice,” Henoch told me. “So we’re in the middle of the meeting, all of us are telling our stories, and Christie just stops everything. He said something along the lines of, “when a policy doesn’t meet its own goals and objectives, you can’t be stubborn about it.’”

  

And just like that, Return Home New Jersey was put down. Christie insisted regulations be drawn up to halt the movement of the disabled individuals (unless their families wanted to move them) with corresponding legislation to be introduced later this week.

 

 “It’s a full victory,” said Henoch, who has 27-year-old daughter, Sophie, who has Prader-Willi Syndrome and lives at Prader-Willi Homes of Oconomowoc, the only place in America that deals specifically with this issue. “Once in a while the little guy wins.”

 

 That’s a sentiment echoed by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle who (despite the following being a cliche doesn’t make it any less true) fought tirelessly from the beginning to kill Return Home New Jersey.

 “The voices of the voiceless have been heard,” she said. “I guess miracles do happen in politics.”

 Of course, as with most miracles, there’s usually an Earth-bound reason for them happening.

 “I think the governor pretty much heard enough specifics, he’s heard from everyone, and he’s doing the right thing,” said Dr. Michael Cole, the guardian of his 65-year-old sister who has been living in Massachusetts for the past 35 years. “The politics, I leave to you to think about.”

 OK then. I will. Happily.

Is it possible Christie, a presidential hopeful, realized “condemning disabled people to possible death despite the legislature disagreeing with him” was not exactly a label he wanted slapped on him while he gambols about the country on the campaign trail? Let’s not forget, Henoch, Cole and hundreds of other affected families coalesced together on this issue. They were not 470 individual voices; they were one voice of 470.

 

 “We were prepared to go to New Hampshire and Iowa,” Henoch said. “We were going to take out newspaper ads. We weren’t going away.”

 

 Or maybe it was just financial. The money in the “money grab” I mentioned earlier started melting away. The savings, according to many people I spoke with, were just not there.

 

 

Or maybe, just maybe, Chris Christie rediscovered his heart. (Cue rising violins!)

 

 

I don’t think we’ll ever know the real reason, and for these families, they don’t even care.

 

 

They’re just glad this ordeal is over.

 

 

Jeff Edelstein is a columnist for The Trentonian. He can be reached at jedelstein@trentonian.com,facebook.com/jeffreyedelstein and @jeffedelstein on Twitter.