N.J. official reassigned to new role in human services department

By Stephanie Akin Bergen Record

Dawn Apgar, the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Human Services who has overseen several years of controversial reforms, will take on a “new role” that does not include direct oversight of the Divisions of Developmental Disabilities or Mental Health and Addiction Services, according to an email circulated by state officials Tuesday.

“There are several projects on which the department’s various divisions will be working closely in a joint or collaborative manner and I have been looking for someone to coordinate and manage these initiatives,” the announcement signed by Department of Human Services Acting Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly read. “Last week, I asked Deputy Commissioner Dawn Apgar to take on this critical role and she accepted the challenge.”

The directors of the Divisions of Developmental Disabilities of Mental Health and Addiction Services will now report to Connolly directly, the announcement read.

In her five years in the position, Apgar steered the closure of two institutions for the developmentally disabled – the North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa and the Woodbridge Developmental Center. The division also reworked its policies on how it would pay for services for people with disabilities, an effort meant to get more federal funding. And it scuttled a plan to move people with disabilities who had been living in out-of-state residential treatment centers to New Jersey-based providers after months of protests from families of the people who would be affected.

The initiatives followed a path that Apgar had promoted in her private career. Apgar, the former head of the Developmental Disabilities Planning Institute at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has been an outspoken supporter of state plans to shift resources into community-based programs for the disabled. But the policies she championed attracted fervent criticism from some families of people with disabilities who said the changes overlooked individual needs.

“There have been many misguided and harmful policies for individuals and families at DDD in recent years,” state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle said in a written statement. “DDD has caused significant upheaval for our most vulnerable residents. I hope that Commissioner Connolly’s decision to directly oversee DDD refocuses the Division on meeting the needs of families in a truly person-centered way.”

Pam Ronan, a spokeswoman from the Department of Health did not answer emailed questions or respond to a request to interview Apgar, referring instead to Connolly’s email.

Email: akin@northjersey.com