LONG HILL — Gov. Chris Christie today defended his decision to move ahead with closing two institutions for people with developmental disabilities, saying he "cannot allow a vocal minority to stop progress.”
Christie said he expected there to be "a lot of yelling and screaming" about the plan to close the North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa and the Woodbridge Developmental Center, which will cease operations in July 2014 and January 2015, respectively.
The administration informed the unionized workers of the closing dates Tuesday. Letters to the families of the 415 people who live at the facilities are going out this week, Pam Ronan, a spokeswoman for the state Human Services, said.
“There’s controversy about this," Christie said at a town hall meeting at Long Hill Community Center in Morris County. "There will always be controversy when you’re closing something,”
He told the receptive crowd: “I understand why some people are upset about that, but I cannot allow a vocal minority to stop progress. I cannot sleep at night knowing I’m institutionalizing people by my hand as the governor."
Christie said it wasn't until after he took office in January 2010 that he learned New Jersey was second only to Texas in the number of large institutions it operates and the number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who live in them.
There were 2,019 residents living in the seven state-run developmental centers as of January, Ronan said.
More than a dozen families have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the closings, arguing their loved ones' right to safe and stable environment would be threatened if they were forced to live in group homes or other settings that they contend do not have the same experienced and skilled employees. The attorney who filed the lawsuit has not responded for a request for comment.
"There are a lot of folks who don't need institutions," and some who "are not treated appropriately," Christie said, adding that some facilities will always remain open because people with the most profound disabilities need that level of care.
Christie said he plans to put any money saved by closing the facilities into providing community housing opportunities and other services. The state expects to realize a savings of $27 million by closing the facility in Totowa, Ronan said.
"Our philosophy is one that says science has moved forward and treatment has moved forward to create a positive environment to allow them to thrive," he said.
State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who chairs the Assembly Human Services Committee, said she was disappointed the administration was moving so fast.
“It’s my hope that despite this latest development, the administration will see the error of its ways and retain a safety net in North Jersey. Otherwise, North Jersey families may see their loved ones relocated throughout the state, making visitation and care supervision extremely difficult," Huttle said.
The northernmost centers are located in Somerset and Hunterdon counties.
“In both his State of the State and budget address this year, the Governor continuously underscored the need for ‘choices’ and yet he is eliminating the choice for people to remain in what has been their home for decades," Huttle said. "In the end, North Jersey will be left without any developmental centers to care for the most profoundly developmentally disabled."
Huttle has sponsored a bill that would require the Department of Human Services to track the location and well-being of people who are transferred from the two developmental centers.