N.J. Department of Human Services in flux, needs strong new leadership

The recent departure of New Jersey Department of Human Services (DHS) Commissioner Jennifer Velez leaves our state at a crossroads and the futures of our most vulnerable residents at stake.

While Commissioner Velez and I have not always agreed on policy and department decisions, I greatly respect and admire her dedication to serving individuals with special needs and their families. She was a steady leader through eight transformative and tumultuous years in our state's human services history, and the person who next takes the helm of New Jersey's largest and most expensive department is no small matter. That person, and his or her vision, will impact millions of people.

When any longtime chief departs, there is an expected period of transition. In this case, there will be an acting commissioner until Gov. Chris Christie appoints, and the state Senate confirms, a new commissioner. But what happens in the meantime? The department serves 1.5 million residents, employs more than 15,000 people, and has an operating budget of about $11 billion. Frankly, DHS is too big to fail.

New Jersey can't afford for anything to get lost in the shuffle of a transition, especially when there are so many critical issues on the department's plate right now, from gaps in mental health coverage to the continued implementation of the Comprehensive Medicaid Waiver to the state budget process. 

Some of the most substantial hurdles for the department lay in how to serve individuals with developmental disabilities. The Division of Developmental Disabilities claims that its mission is person-centered planning, focusing on giving people choice and options in where they live and how they spend their days. However, the division's actions during the past several years are evidence to the contrary. 

Some troubling examples of this are the closure of the two North Jersey developmental centers and the Return Home NJ initiative, which is uprooting many individuals who have been receiving specialized care out of state for years, much to the consternation of their families. However, the most blatant instance is the Statewide Transition Plan. 

In response to the federal government's call for greater inclusion of individuals with developmental disabilities in our communities, the division created a Statewide Transition Plan with the supposed goal of community integration for individuals with special needs. While this might be laudable, the implications are impractical.

As chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee, I held a hearing on the plan and the response was alarming. Families, service providers, and disability advocates joined together to strongly oppose the department's proposal because it is expected to cause devastating upheaval in the lives of New Jersey's special-needs residents. 

The greatest concern in the plan is the requirement that all day program participants spend at least 75 percent of their time away from their program site, regardless of circumstances. I heard concerns of parents who are afraid their children who eat by feeding tubes will have to go through this process out in public, at a mall or a supermarket. Others are worried that their loved ones will lose the daily routine they desperately need to manage behavioral problems. At the same time, providers are wondering how they will pay for more staff and transportation when the plan doesn't call for more funding. 

Another grave concern is the hard limit on the number of residents allowed in a group home. Prohibiting living arrangements with more than four to six individuals threatens to shut down existing group homes, halt the construction of new residences, and restrict the choices for individuals who want to live in a larger house that has the capacity for more wrap-around services. 

The public comment period on this plan ended Feb/ 26, with what I'm sure was little positive feedback. I implore the Division of Developmental Disabilities to scale back the Statewide Transition Plan, considered the most restrictive in the nation, before it submits it to the federal government for approval. 

The bottom line is that the Department of Human Services has been heading in the wrong direction for a long time when it comes to giving choices to our special-needs community. I hope a new commissioner will be able to chart a new course for the department. Our most vulnerable residents deserve it.

Valerie Vainieri Huttle is a Democratic assemblywoman representing Bergen County.