Lilo H. Stainton, NJ Spotlight

Some advocates fear plan would create new level of bureaucracy for families to negotiate

State senators from both political parties have joined forces to advance a plan that would create an independent office within New Jersey government to advocate for residents with developmental disabilities and help them navigate the existing maze of government services.

The legislation — scheduled for a vote Thursday in the Senate Health Committee — mirrors a proposal approved by a unanimous vote in the Assembly in June that would create an ombudsman’s office for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their families. The ombudsman would be appointed by the governor but would operate independently to connect people with state programs run by several departments, advocate for them with state officials, monitor the state’s work, and report to state officials and lawmakers.

While two similar versions of the plan were considered, Senate staff said the lead sponsors, Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) and Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), chose to advance the Assembly bill (S-2392) that calls for the office to serve as a neutral party to help resolve disputes between families and state agencies. The bill envisions the ombudsman as a conduit for information and an advocate for those with disabilities and mechanism to help ensure that public policy reflects the needs of developmentally disabled individuals.

“There’s a bipartisan consensus that we need to move forward with this effort to increase access to services and increase protections for those with developmental disabilities,” Kean said. “I’m glad to partner with Senator Stack on this critical legislation to support our state’s most vulnerable residents.”

In July, Stack introduced a slightly different plan that created an ombudsman office designed primarily to help individuals and families navigate the system. His measure envisioned the same independent structure but did not empower the ombudsman as an arbitrator in disputes between clients and the state. Staff said the two senators agreed to merge the two bills, given their similarities. 

The ombudsman concept has been embraced by some families caring for disabled members, and advocacy groups who have grown frustrated trying to help clients connect with the services they are entitled to receive. But other organizations have raised concerns about creating additional levels of bureaucracy for families to confront or duplicative service. They also question the role and power of the position as conceived.

The state supports roughly 25,000 adults and nearly 15,000 children with some form of intellectual or developmental disability through efforts that include early intervention diagnostic programs, community-based day programs, summer camps, in-home support, and group home and residential facilities. This work is done directly, or overseen, by staff in multiple agencies within the Department of Human Services and the Department of Children and Families. Tracking the nuances of who does what can be daunting, clients have said.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, who sponsored the first bill in May, said she had often heard from people frustrated with finding access to state services. "The ombudsman would serve as a GPS to help people navigate the bureaucracy. It would be like a one-stop shopping place with a wealth of information," she said at the time.

As drafted, the measure calls for the governor to appoint an ombudsman who is “qualified by training and experience” to do the job, adding: “The ombudsman shall be a person of recognized judgment, integrity, and objectivity, and shall be skilled in communication, conflict resolution, and professionalism.”

The ombudsman would have an office and staff that was “in, but not of” the Treasury Department, meaning it would be considered part of that agency for budgetary reasons but would operate independently of the treasurer or any other cabinet officials. The office would be tasked with helping state program officials communicate more effectively with the disabled residents they serve and coordinating with the State Council on Developmental Disabilities. The council has declined to weigh in on the proposal so far.

In addition, the office would be required to “work neutrally and objectively with all parties” to help fairly resolve disputes between those receiving care and the state officials in charge of these programs. The ombudsman would also track complaints about these services and recommend improvements, when appropriate.