The Record: Protecting the meek (OP-ED)

By Valerie Huttle -- Saving North Jersey developmental centers

SCRIPTURE STATES that the meek shall inherit the Earth. For some families in North Jersey, the meek are not so lucky. On July 1, the first of two developmental centers serving disabled individuals in northern New Jersey will close. The second is scheduled to be shut down Jan. 1. Families are scrambling, and Governor Christie has not interceded on their behalf.

New Jersey has seven centers for disabled people – some are specialized to care for elderly clients or individuals who need to live in a secure facility, while others, including the two in North Jersey, are for general population. New Jersey lags behind other states in moving people with disabilities out of institutional care into community settings. There is little debate that New Jersey should begin the process of closing some of its centers, but the criteria used by a special task force to evaluate these state centers put economic needs ahead of sound public policy.

The more than 100-year-old developmental center in Vineland had been originally targeted for closure. There are two other centers for people with disabilities in close proximity to Vineland. But state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, a Cape May Democrat, wanted Vineland to stay open. And so began a political tradeoff that gave Christie Democratic support for pension reform and preserved jobs in economically depressed South Jersey at the expense of disabled individuals and their families in the northern part of the state.

As reported by Staff Writer Mary Jo Layton, some families with relatives in the Totowa facility – the first scheduled to close – are pleasantly surprised by how well their loved ones are doing in residential centers. This is good news. But it is a mistake to assume that all people with disabilities are at the same levels. And it is poor public policy to close facilities when there are not enough residential centers to house the ousted clients and to force other families to drive two or more hours each way to visit loved ones.

Layton reported the state Division of Developmental Disabilities provides services to 40,000 disabled people in New Jersey; 2,340 have lived in developmental centers. There are 8,000 individuals, mostly living with families, on waiting lists for community services, such as group homes. The state has only begun to aggressively address this issue, and yet it is going to add more people into the system within months.

Christie has chosen not to listen to the concerns of North Jersey families. With the imminent closure of Totowa and then, in January, of the center in Woodbridge, disabled individuals in these facilities who have not been placed in residential settings will mostly go to Vineland in Cumberland County. Christie will do nothing, saying he won't allow "a vocal minority to stop progress."

These people are more than vocal minorities; they are families. They are fighting for a common-sense solution to a problem created by Trenton. This is exactly the kind of wrong voters elected Christie to right.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, has been trying to apply several legislative fixes. One would split the state into four regions and ensure that one developmental center remains open in each. Second, she wants to track what happens to each displaced disabled person. Both bills should be supported by the Legislature and Christie.

The clock can still be stopped on closing Totowa, but there is not much time. The special task force on developmental centers acted like the BRAC Commission considering a military base closure and the subsequent economic consequences on neighboring communities. The North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa is not a military base. The individuals living there — some for most of their lives – are not military assets. They are human beings.

The state cannot put politics ahead of the needs of its vulnerable population or their families. Closing the developmental centers in Totowa and Woodbridge is a mistake New Jersey cannot afford to make.
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