WITHIN WEEKS, the last residents of the North Jersey Development Center in Totowa will leave. The state's decision to close this North Jersey center for developmentally disabled individuals is complex – partly driven by a desire to do what is in the best interests of residents, as experts across the nation see home-like settings as better than institutional ones. But the decision is also driven by old-fashioned politics and budget constraints. The result is something less than ideal when the real-life equation does not contain numbers and statistics, but vulnerable human beings.
That has been brought home by reports that two men, Richard Fornarotto and Steven Cortes — former residents at the Totowa center — choked to death earlier this year when they no longer were in institutional care. Could staff more familiar with these men and their case-specific needs have prevented these deaths? Perhaps there is no definitive answer, but if the state wants credibility for having the well-being of residents as its first priority, a thorough investigation with results made public is essential. Not every resident in a developmental center is a candidate for a group home. State officials cannot forget that.
The benefits of a home setting are obvious, and, in a perfect world, current residents would live close to their families and be encouraged to reach their greatest potential. We do not doubt that state officials charged with making this public policy change want good outcomes. But we are concerned that the process is moving too quickly and has not been completely free of political taint.
There had been general consensus in Trenton to close a developmental center in Vineland. But a political deal was struck with South Jersey forces that saved Vineland and instead would close not one, but two centers in North Jersey, Totowa and one in Woodbridge. The effect on families who may have to travel hours south and on the residents of these facilities is not minimal. There is a human cost here.
The state set a mid-2017 deadline to move all individuals eligible for community placement into community settings. That seemed reasonable. But the deadline for Totowa is now July 1. The Woodbridge center will close by Jan. 1, 2015. Meanwhile, there is a waiting list of 8,000 people, most who live with families, for community services, including group homes and day programs.
Clearly, the demand is greater than the resources. The closing of these two centers may free up funds to be used for more community-based services, but the services should be in place before people are moved. And the fact remains that residents in Totowa and Woodbridge who are not candidates for group homes will have to be placed in the remaining developmental centers — none of which will be in North Jersey.
The families of these residents have not been silent. Governor Christie has called them a "vocal minority" trying to stop progress. That is not fair to advocates fighting to defend the people they love. The deaths of Fornarotto and Cortes are troubling because they were wards of the state, having no living relatives to care for their affairs. There was no family to make noise for them.
The transition from mainly institutional care to home-like settings will not come without error, but it is imperative that those errors are few. That the Totowa center will close at month's end is a given. But before Woodbridge closes, the state must guarantee that every resident is properly screened and that there are checks in place to assess whether individuals moved into group homes are functioning well or need to go back into an institutional setting.
Beyond that, the state must recognize that a vocal minority is making noise because their loved ones cannot.