Huttle: New Jersey's developmental centers should stay open

IT HAS BEEN said that the moral test of government is how it treats the most vulnerable members of society. The residents of the North Jersey and Woodbridge Developmental Centers, and the thousands of other developmentally disabled individuals in New Jersey, are certainly our most vulnerable citizens. The state has an obligation to make sure they are safe, well cared for, and given every opportunity to thrive.

This month, the Assembly and Senate held a joint hearing at Montclair State University to discuss the pending closure of developmental centers. Over the course of five hours, almost 300 parents, siblings, and advocates spoke on behalf of their loved ones, imploring us to keep these centers open.

The pending closures are the result of a decision issued by the New Jersey Task Force on the Closure of State Developmental Centers. This recommendation is binding; therefore, the only way to stop the closures is to pass new legislation and for Governor Christie to sign it. I have introduced a bill that would require the state to retain at least one developmental center in each region of the state: north, west, central and south.

If the closures are carried out, five developmental centers will remain open with not a single one in either north or central New Jersey. That leaves the families of the North Jersey and Woodbridge centers with two options: place their relatives in a community home that they may not feel is the most appropriate setting or in another development center at the other end of the state. Individuals with developmental disabilities, along with their families, should have a choice in where they live. This is not a real choice, particularly for parents who are elderly with limited mobility.

I support and promote community housing options, such as group homes, supervised apartments, and even living at home with family so that individuals have the greatest freedom as possible. Over the next several years, I hope to see significantly more housing built and developed in North Jersey and across the state.

There are more than 8,000 people on a list waiting for residential placement and services. Many have been waiting years to move into a group home, yet most of the residents of the North Jersey and Woodbridge Developmental Centers want to remain at the centers where they have spent their lives. Rather than make those on the list wait longer while also disrupting the lives of the center residents, let us first secure community housing for those on the list before we force anyone out of a developmental center that has been their home for decades.

The state should not close any developmental centers until it is clear that we have sufficient housing and the necessary accompanying supports for individuals who wish to live in the community. We are not there yet.

At this time, I encourage the state to keep all seven developmental centers open. I ask my colleagues in the Legislature and Governor Christie to join me in continuing to protect our most vulnerable residents.
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