Senators: Deal reached with Christie over Return Home policy

By MICHAEL CATALINI - Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey residents with developmental disabilities living in out-of-state facilities and facing the prospect of a forced return to the state could remain where they are under a compromise unveiled Monday by lawmakers and supported by Gov. Chris Christie.

The deal, announced Monday by a bipartisan group of state senators, including Senate President Steve Sweeney, Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. and senators Bob Gordon and Christopher “Kip” Bateman, comes after behind-the-scenes talks with Christie and almost a month since the Senate came within one vote of overriding the Republican governor’s veto of legislation aimed at ending the requirement that residents in out-of-state facilities return to New Jersey.

The policy, known as Return Home New Jersey, dates to 2009 and is aimed at returning adults with developmental disabilities who had been placed in other states’ facilities to New Jersey. The reason, lawmakers said, was so the state could recover federal dollars. More than 300 residents remain in out-of-state placements.

Legislators sought to end the program through a legislative moratorium but Christie vetoed it. Lawmakers said they heard from constituents whose family members were in other states’ facilities - Bateman specifically cited the Woods Services in Langhorne, Pennsylvania - who said it would be disruptive to return their family members to the state.

Now, the senators say they will introduce a bill on Thursday they expect to pass and that the Assembly and governor will also support.

The new bill permits individuals or their guardians to opt out of the program if they object to a transfer in writing.

Lawmakers hailed the agreement as a compassionate solution. Gordon called the compromise a “return to sanity,” and Sweeney said the governor engaged on the issue because he “listened” to people affected.

Democratic Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle said that the “voices of the voiceless have finally been heard,” and also said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto has agreed to return from recess to consider the deal.

Christie spokeswoman Nicole Sizemore said the governor met with families and individuals affected by the program in his office last week and agreed that “sensible changes” were needed.

“The governor agreed with the need for sensible changes that ensure the safety and well-being of every New Jerseyan residing in an out-of-state placement,” Sizemore said in a statement, adding the legislation unveiled Monday was “encouraging.”

It is unclear if individuals who returned home under the program will be able to go back to their out-of-state facilities, but Gordon said the administration has suspended the program and not made transfers in the past couple of months. Bateman said he has talked to residents who came back to New Jersey who were happy with their placements.

Though, Sweeney indicated the state can be doing better.

“We need to create more facilities like Woods in New Jersey so the capacity is there for the families because this issue is not going away,” Sweeney said.