Legislators call for study of displaced developmental center residents

Suzanne Russell, My Central Jersey

WOODBRIDGE - Nearly a year after the Woodbridge Developmental Center closed and all the developmentally challenged residents transferred to other developmental centers or group homes, legislators have passed a bill calling for a study of the residents transition, especially those relocated into group homes.

The bill, which has been approved by the Assembly and Senate, now goes to the governor for approval.

The bill would require the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the state developmental centers, to conduct studies to assess the well-being of former residents of the Woodbridge Developmental Center on Rahway Avenue and the North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa who transitioned into the community after Aug. 1, 2012, the date when a state task force recommended the closure of the two state facilities.

"North Jersey and Woodbridge Developmental Centers provided access to the special resources their residents needed while also giving families the ability to visit and provide all-important emotional support," said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-37th District. "Ideally for the benefit of the residents and their loved ones  we would have kept these facilities open. However, given the administration's 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."

The closure of the Woodbridge and North Jersey facilities left the state with five developmental centers: Hunterdon Developmental Center in Clinton, Green Brook Regional Center in Green Brook, New Lisbon Developmental Center in Burlington County, Woodbine Developmental Center in Cape May County and Vineland Developmental Center in Cumberland County.

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, D-18th District, said the developmental centers provided outstanding care and it's unfortunate the residents have been displaced.

"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," he said.

Under the bill, the study would examine data related to the individuals ability to maintain the same level of services and support provided prior to leaving the developmental center, behavioral changes, contact with family members and peers, and competence related to cognition, self-care and mobility.

But Joanne St. Amand, president  of the Association for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities, whose sister is a former Woodbridge Developmental Center resident, questions the criteria and said the study needs to go further.

She said the study needs to look at whether former developmental center residents are attending their regular doctor visits and getting the proper health tests, while also looking at the number of times former developmental center residents have been treated in the emergency room, the number of times emergency medical personnel have been called to the group home, and the number of times 911 calls have been made from the group home.

"A smile (from the resident) doesn't tell the whole story," said St. Amand, adding that the study also needs to look at how many former developmental center residents are still alive.

St. Amand said 27 former Woodbridge Developmental Center residents have died since the closures were announced. The most recent death she is aware of occurred in June, but there could be more. St. Amand said she only hears about deaths through word of mouth from other families.

About 10 of the people died while still living at the Woodbridge facility but after the closure announcement was made. She said families feel the diminished staff coverage and change in quality of care was a contributing factor to the death rate.

"The closure process for Woodbridge Developmental Center had a dramatic and tragic impact on the individuals moved from the center and their families. They are not “resilient to change” as some deinstitutionalization advocates would like you to believe. They got sick, had more seizures, developed pneumonia and many passed away," St. Amand said.

"These outcomes are even more tragic because they are predictable. Many studies show a higher mortality rate when individuals with significant needs are displaced from specialized medical care, separated from trained caregivers and placed in smaller dwellings," she said.

She said the state needs to follow up on every resident at the Woodbridge Developmental Center, whether they were relocated to another developmental center or not.

"The change was traumatic," said St. Amand, who said her sister now seems to be doing well following some initial disorientation.

St. Amand applauds the legislators for the bill aimed at following up on the developmental center residents but added she hopes it helps the state "to never close another (developmental) center."