Lilo H. Stainton, NJ Spotlight

Reducing physical and emotional abuse, neglect in state-funded facilities

After nearly three years of discussion and legislative fine-tuning, New Jersey lawmakers will again review a proposal to better protect individuals with developmental disabilities, improve transparency around state-funded operations, and hold abusers accountable for their actions. 

The measure —known as Stephen Komninos’ Law, after a 22-year-old man who choked to death in a group home when left alone in 2007 against medical orders — would require a half-dozen surprise visits per year at public institutions and private group homes, day programs, and other facilities that use state funds to serve people with developmental disabilities. The plan requires family members to be notified within an hour of any abuse or injury discovered and requires state officials to follow up on such reports within days. It also mandates background tests and drug screening for front-line staff at these sites.

The latest version of the bill (A-2503), championed by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) with nine of her colleagues, is scheduled for a vote Thursday in the Assembly Appropriations Committee; it received unanimous support from the Human Services Committee in September. A Senate version, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Senator Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), awaits action.

Relatives of developmentally disabled clients in New Jersey have rallied for years to improve oversight and accountability at the myriad of public and privately operated facilities that house and serve their loved ones. They note that, while schools must quickly alert parents to any accident or injury involving their child, families can be left in the dark for days, if not weeks, when something befalls a disabled individual in the state’s care. 

While they decry any abuse, some operators of group homes have raised concerns about elements of the proposed reform. The Arc of New Jersey, which advocates for those with developmental disabilities and also runs homes and day programs, has questioned the state’s capacity to conduct these inspections without any additional resources to pay for staff time and expenses. The group also feared the additional cost of a background check, to be covered by the applicant, would further discourage already hard-to-find staff. 

In total, the state Department of Human Services operates facilities and funds outside organizations that serve an estimated 30,000 individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. DHS staff in the facility licensing unit are empowered to visit any state-funded home or program at any time for any reason but are not required to make regular inspections to monitor past or potential abuse.

This give and take among stakeholders resulted in a number of changes to the legislation, which has evolved since it was first introduced in November 2014. Originally, the bill called for three unannounced visits each year and gave staff up to 24 hours to notify family members of any incident. But relatives felt this was not enough protection for vulnerable clients, some of whom are non-verbal and need full-time assistance to eat, dress, and function. 

 “Families are looking for safeguards, transparency, and accountability,” Vainieri Huttle explained. “And that is the purpose of this bill.” 

The latest version of the proposal calls for six surprise visits at each state-funded facility or program to determine if developmentally disabled clients have been, are being, or are at risk of being abused, mistreated, or injured. The bill covers all aspects of physical and sexual abuse and also applies to racial or ethnic slurs, bullying, ignoring a client’s needs, and intimidating them with words or gestures.

When an incident or concern is discovered, the proposal would require staff to notify a designated family member by telephone or in person within an hour, and follow up with a written notice that day. Operators would have 24 hours to report the incident to DHS and log it into a state database designed to monitor abuse cases. State officials would need to follow-up with a site visit of their own within 48 hours.

In addition, the bill amends the 2010 law that created the database, known as the Central Registry, to make sure it includes incidents discovered at day programs, not just residential facilities. It also increases transparency for family members, enabling them to participate in any investigation that might result, and ensures they have access to regular updates and details, including medical reports. 

The proposal calls for a background check and drug test before direct-care staff can be hired by a state-funded program that serves developmentally disabled residents. These workers can also be retested for substance abuse at any time, if questions arise. The bill establishes penalties for staff who abuse individuals in their care and managers who fail to properly report these issues that include fines of up to $15,000 and prison terms of three to five years.