Christie ends controversial 'Return Home N.J.' policy for disabled

Susan K. Livio, NJ Advance Media for 

TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie on Monday signed into law a bill that formally ends a controversial policy of requiring disabled people living in subsidized homes outside the state to be returned to New Jersey.

A policy that began under Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009, "Return Home New Jersey" actually ceased in July following an agreement between Christie, and Senate Democrats and Republican leaders, after nearly two years of complaints from families. 

But the bill specifies that families must request in writing their disabled loved one remain outside the state. People must be enrolled in the Medicaid program, and the facility taking care of them must not be cited for safety violations or fail to turn over inspection and investigative reports.

Before the policy was halted, the state Department of Human Services transferred about 170 people with developmental disabilities from out-of-state facilities to group homes in New Jersey, and would have relocated 370 more.

The idea behind it was to save money and allow families to live closer to their loved ones, but families lobbied hard against the policy, arguing their sons and daughters had lived for years — and even decades — in facilities that understood their complex medical and behavioral needs.

The bill's signing is the "end of a very long nightmare" for families, said Rita O'Grady, whose son, Tyler Loftus was transferred from a Pennsylvania facility in 2013 and returned there in November 2015 after failing in several group homes in Somerset and Hunterdon counties.

O'Grady needed to enlist a lawyer from the organization, Fight4Autism to win her case against her son's continued placement in New Jersey.

"Essentially, this bill formalizes the agreement we had sought for quite a long time with the administration to end the program known as "Return Home New Jersey," said state Assemblywoman Valeri Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), one of the sponsors.

"As countless advocates and family members told us, this program was disruptive, dehumanizing and disadvantageous to their loved ones who had been receiving the specialized care they needed in out-of-state facilities for years. I'm grateful that they will no longer be forced to return against their will," Huttle said.

Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), who also helped craft the compromise with the governor, said the legislation strikes a fair balance.

"Today's bill signing makes certain that family members and guardians have the flexibility they've asked for, while providing an appropriate level of oversight by the state, to ensure the highest level of care and comfort is provided in each and every case," Kean said.