Stories of abuse at N.J. group homes spark lawmakers to demand action

Susan K. Livio, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

TRENTON — If a child came home from day care or school with bruises, burns and broken bones, parents would rightfully demand an explanation and administrators would expect to be held accountable. So why do people with developmental disabilities deserve any less of a response? 

Gus Egizi of Hammonton politely but firmly posed this question Monday to members of the Assembly Human Services Committee as they debated a bill that would impose stricter rules on state licensed group home operators.

Egizi said his 37-year-old son, Michael, suffered a sunburn so bad he needed hospital care, as well as multiple bruises and injuries while under the care of group home and hospital staff. He's hired lawyers to get answers, but those requests have been ignored.

"This would not be tolerated if it had happened at a day care center or a school," Egizi said. "This is a human rights issue. This is a civil rights issue."

Aileen Rivera, a councilwoman from Wayne, said her 31-year-old son still suffers from the anxiety from enduring beatings, being restrained for hours and humiliated when a worker urinated on him.

"There is an urgency to this bill," Rivera said. "Lives depend on it."

The committee approved the bill by a 6-0 vote that would require:

  • Six unannounced inspections at a group home every year;
  • Drug testing for group home employees;
  • Family and guardian notification within an hour after a medical emergency;
  • Investigators to seek input from families or guardians and provide them progress reports during investigations.

The bill (A2503) is named for Stephen Komninos, a 22-year-old man who died in 2007 when he was left unsupervised against medical orders, and choked to death on a bagel.

"The protections afforded by this bill are too late to save Stephen's life. He did not survive the system," said Thomas J. Komninos of Upper Saddle River said of his son. "But today you will hear about others who have, so far, survived. Please do what is right for these people. Let's start giving them the same rights and protections enjoyed by all the other people in New Jersey.

Tom Baffuto, executive director for The Arc of New Jersey, a statewide advocacy organization that has group home providers in each county, said he was "crushed" to hear the stories about their loved ones' abuse and neglect.

But the remedy offered through this bill won't help and could make conditions worse, Baffuto said.

The state Department of Human Services does not have the staff to perform six unannounced visits a year, and adding more inspectors will divert money away from services, Baffuto said. Three inspections is more reasonable and was included in the bill's first iteration in 2014, he said.

The same committee passed a similar bill two years ago, but chairwoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) who is also the sponsor, said she abandoned that measure in order to meet with interested parties and develop "more comprehensive legislation." 

It's hard enough to attract a group home workforce when the average starting salary is a meager $10.50 an hour. Requiring applicants pay for the test will deter applicants, Baffuto said. 

"Sometimes even with the best of intentions, things that look good on paper are virtually impossible to operationalize," Baffuto said.