'Stephen Komninos' Law' Would Put Measures in Place to Better Address Reports of Abuse and Neglect in State-Licensed Facilities
Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Gabriela Mosquera, Cleopatra Tucker, Angela McKnight, Raj Mukherji and Benjie Wimberly to better protect children and adults with development disabilities from potential abuse and neglect from caregivers gained approval from a Senate committee on Monday.
The bill (A-2503), known as "Stephen Komninos' Law," honors the memory of Stephen, an individual with developmental disabilities who died at the age of 22 while under the care of a private state-licensed facility for individuals with developmental disabilities. Stephen was a non-verbal young man who suffered through many substantiated incidents of abuse and neglect by caregivers. Tragically, the last incident resulted in his death.
"After suffering the tragic loss of Stephen Komninos, our goal is to prevent future tragedies," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "This bill will institute a major overhaul to our system to put protections in place to help uncover any incidents of abuse or neglect before they end in tragedy and ensure that these incidents are addressed as swiftly as possible and those responsible are held accountable. Ultimately, our goal is to create an environment that does not tolerate abuse, neglect, or exploitation of individuals with developmental disabilities."
The bill would help protect and ensure accountability and transparency for adults and children with developmental disabilities through site visits, allowing a guardian or family member to attend or observe any investigation by the Department of Human Services in cases of abuse, neglect or exploitation and by increasing the penalty for certain crimes.
"Sadly, the people most in need of our help and compassion often are considered easy targets for abuse and maltreatment," said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester). "The provisions in this bill will hopefully provide greater peace of mind for families by ensuring that facilities charged with helping their loved ones don't actually end up causing the most damage."
"Under the bill, the DHS commissioner would designate employees to conduct at least two unannounced site visits annually to randomly evaluate whether the individuals with developmental disabilities who are receiving services from a state licensed program, living arrangement or facility are at risk of, or are being subjected to, abuse, neglect, or exploitation by a caregiver," said Tucker (D-Essex).
"DHS would be required to report incidents of abuse, neglect or exploitation to the guardian or authorized family member of an individual with a developmental disability as soon as possible, which will ensure that loved ones are informed promptly," said McKnight (D-Hudson).
"Not only do these changes substantially increase oversight at facilities, but they also bring families further into the fold, keeping them more informed and involved on the status of their loved one and creating greater peace of mind," said Mukherji (D-Hudson).
"When parents take their children with developmental disabilities to a facility, they hope that the employees will treat their children with love and respect. Their absolute worst fear is that they one day will go through the pain that the Komninos family has experienced," said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). "New Jersey has a responsibility to take a zero-tolerance stance when it comes to abuse and neglect by caregivers."
Under the bill, a caregiver who has a legal duty to care for someone with a developmental disability and subjects the person to abuse, neglect or exploitation would be guilty of a crime of the second degree. As soon as possible, but no more than one hour after an occurrence of abuse, neglect or exploitation, DHS must notify the authorized family member or guardian of the victim.
Within 48 hours of receipt of a report of an incident involving physical injury, abuse or neglect in a state developmental center, residential program or day program, the DHS commissioner would send a DHS employee to the location of the reported incident to verify the level of severity of the incident.
DHS must maintain the reports, initiate appropriate responses through timely and appropriate investigative activities, alert appropriate staff and then ensure that findings are reported in a uniform and timely manner.
DHS also would be required to adopt rules and regulations necessary to provide for an investigation of a reported incident and allegations of abuse, neglect, or exploitation which shall include:
- Maintaining an Office of Investigations to investigate serious unusual incidents;
- Providing the guardian or authorized family member with prior notice of the commencement of an investigation - either in person or via telephone - and providing an opportunity for him or her to submit information to facilitate an investigation and to represent the individual and be informed of the progress of the investigation;
- Providing the guardian or authorized family member with a written progress report that shows the status of the investigation, including any medical records or reports about the individual, within seven calendar days of the incident and weekly thereafter;
- Providing a written summary of the conclusions of the investigation to the guardian or authorized family member of the individual with a developmental disability who is the subject of the alleged abuse, neglect, or exploitation.
DHS also would be required to adopt rules and regulations that define the procedures and standards for inclusion of an offending caregiver on a central registry, which is to be established by the bill, and for notifying the guardian or authorized family member of the individual with a developmental disability who was the subject of the abuse, neglect, or exploitation that led to the caregiver's inclusion on the central registry.
A case manager or case manager's supervisor in DHS who fails to report an act of abuse, neglect, or exploitation of an individual with a developmental disability while having reasonable cause to believe that such an act has been committed would be guilty of a crime of the fourth degree. If the abuse, neglect, or exploitation results in the death of an individual with a developmental disability, the case manager or case manager's supervisor would be guilty of a crime of the third degree.
Under the bill, each state developmental center must biannually schedule a meeting with parents and guardians of individuals with developmental disabilities. The provider of a community-based residential program or day program shall request contact information from each parent and, if the parent agrees, share the contact information with other parents, so that parents may connect with one another and share their experiences.
The legislation also would require drug testing for all applicants seeking employment as a direct care staff member at a program, facility or living arrangement licensed or funded by DHS. Hired candidates would be subject to random drug testing during the course of employment. Random drug testing would be required at least once annually.
The bill received unanimous approval from the Assembly prior to being advanced by the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. The measure has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.