Legislation Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Pamela Lampitt, Angela McKnight, Jamel Holley, Raj Mukherji, Andrew Zwicker and Benjie Wimberly sponsored to create the office of an ombudsman to serve as an advocate for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities was advanced Thursday by a Senate committee.
"Navigating state and federal laws and bureaucracy can be overwhelming for anyone," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee. "For those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, it can be downright frustrating, which can deter some individuals and families from accessing much-needed services that may be available to help them. This is counterproductive and in no one's best interest. By creating an ombudsman to help guide them through the state and federal labyrinth of services, we can help individuals become more self-sufficient, thriving members of the community."
The bill (A-3824) would establish the independent Office of the Ombudsman for Individuals with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities and Their Families in, but not of, the Department of the Treasury. The ombudsman is to be appointed by the governor.
"The loved ones of individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities want them to be able to take advantage of all the programs and services available, but doing the research alone is like a full-time job," said Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington). "Having a single office people can contact with questions and concerns will be invaluable."
"All New Jersey residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities deserve the opportunity to live happy, healthy lives," said McKnight (D-Hudson). "It's so important that these individuals and those who care for them know how to access the resources that can make that possible."
"The services New Jersey makes available to those with disabilities can only be useful if people know they exist and understand how to access them," said Holley (D-Union). "The ombudsman will be dedicated to knowing the issues that affect individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities thoroughly and making it easier for people to access health care, pursue an education, seek employment and live independently."
"Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities require a strong support system in order to thrive and reach their full potential," said Mukherji (D-Hudson). "Establishing this office will fortify that system and open doors for more New Jersey residents."
"Parents and guardians who are raising children with disabilities face challenges that can often make them feel alone and helpless," said Zwicker (D-Somerset/Mercer/Hunterdon/Middlesex). "Knowing the ombudsman is there to help will provide peace of mind as they navigate what may seem to be a complex and daunting system."
"Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have a right to the opportunity to thrive and be happy," said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). "This legislation will help parents, caregivers, educators and everyone involved in the lives of people with disabilities access tools to ensure that they have the best possible quality of life."
The ombudsman would organize and direct the work of the office with duties that would include, but not be limited to, the following:
1) serving as a source of information for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their families and interested members of the public, to help them better understand state and federal laws and regulations governing individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities;
2) providing, in coordination with the State Council on Developmental Disabilities: information and support to individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their families in navigating and understanding the process for obtaining services and support from the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) and the Division of Children's System of Care (CSOC), including information and support for those who transition from receiving services and supports; and assistance in obtaining appropriate, services, support, and opportunities from CSOC or DDD that focus on personal goals and making those goals become a reality;
3) providing information, communication strategies and available options when it comes to resolving disagreements with CSOC, DDD, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) or the Department of Human Services (DHS) regarding the evaluation, placement, or provision of services and supports; and to educate individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their families;
4) working neutrally and objectively to help ensure that a fair process is followed in the resolution of disputes concerning the provision of supports and services to individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities receiving services from CSOC or DDD;
5) identifying patterns of complaints regarding the rights and services of individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities and recommending strategies for improvements; and
6) assisting CSOC and DDD in creating public information programs designed to acquaint and educate individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, their families, and the public about the duties of the ombudsman.
The bill also would require the ombudsman to issue a written report annually to the Commissioner of Human Services and the Commissioner of Children and Families, which would include a summary of the services the ombudsman provided during the year and any specific recommendations the ombudsman deems appropriate and necessary to provide services and support to individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The report also would be issued to the governor and the legislature.
The measure, which passed the Assembly 68-7-4, was advanced by the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. It now awaits further Senate consideration.