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Families of Disabled Residents Sue to Keep Developmental Centers Open

Class-action lawsuit alleges state violated constitutional rights in closing facilities in Woodbridge, Totowa.

Credit: Sherrie Preische
Family members of developmental-center residents gather outside U.S. District Court in Newark, where a class-action lawsuit was filed yesterday in an attempt to save facilities in Woodbridge and Totowa.

Families of intellectually disabled residents are trying to stop the state from closing developmental centers in Woodbridge and Totowa, filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Newark yesterday.

The class-action lawsuit filed by 38 families alleges that the state violated the constitutional rights of center residents and also broke a series of federal laws by closing the facilities, forcing their families to either move them to smaller group homes or to more distant developmental centers.

“We really feel the state’s not listening to us and we needed to do it to really preserve and enforce the civil rights of the families,” said Joanne St. Amand, whose sister, Rosemary Sciarillo, has lived at the Woodbridge center for 38 years.

A state panel voted last July to close Woodbridge Developmental Center and the North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa], the only two of the state’s seven centers located in heavily populated northeastern New Jersey.

Family members protested that residents would be harmed by moving to group homes – which family members say are incapable of providing the level of service profoundly disabled residents require – or to other centers that are far from the families.

Governor Chris Christie has said he will not reverse the decision made by the panel, which was convened after state officials recommended closing a center in Vineland. Group-home supporters have said they can provide the appropriate level of services to developmental center residents.

“We worked hard, we held hearings, and these are the recommendations that came out, and I have no interest in reinventing the wheel,” Christie said of the closures during a March 7 press conference at a group home in Robbinsville.

The lawsuit seeks to keep the developmental centers open, to restore staffing levels to what they were before the decision to close the facilities, and to require residents’ consent to move from the centers. It alleges that the state has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and Medicaid law.

The lawsuit asserts that medical staff recommended that residents stay in the centers until the state decided to close them, when they then began to “routinely and inappropriately” say that many residents would be best served in other locations including group homes that don’t provide the constant level of medical care that the developmental centers provide.

The suit also alleges that state officials are pressuring family members to choose group homes and have mischaracterized residents’ ability to live in group homes. The developmental centers have had to reduce staff and services as residents have left the facilities, putting the remaining residents in danger, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit notes the severe disabilities that most of the residents have, including Sciarillo, who is unable to communicate and depends on center staff “to initiate and complete all activities of daily living,” and Jackie Friedman, who cannot speak and requires constant care.

Sam Friedman, Jackie’s brother, said it was easy for the families to decide to file the lawsuit, considering the pressures they face.

“The whole process has been fraught with coercion from the beginning,” he said, adding that state officials have consistently suggested that there is little room for new residents at the nearest developmental center to northern New Jersey, which is in Hunterdon County.

Friedman said some families have agreed to allow residents to move only after months of pressure from the state.

St. Amand said it would be tragic to move residents 100 miles from their families and from the places where some of them have lived for decades.

“That’s just unconscionable to force the family” to drive to centers in Vineland or New Lisbon. “Especially if their parents are alive, they’re elderly, they’ll never make that trip.”

St. Amand said the need to file the lawsuit grew as staffing levels at the centers fell. She said residents may not understand what is happening, “but they know that there is an environment of stress. We’re just worried for them.”

Family members have praised the level of care that residents received at the centers before the closure decision, including the constant medical care and other services.

Advocates for group homes have said that the same level of services can be provided in those facilities, a claim disputed by family members of developmental center residents.

Both the developmental centers and group homes are funded through the state’s limited allotment of Medicaid funding.

Alison Lozano, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, said advocates believe all people with disabilities “have a civil right to live among us and receive services in home setting.” The council is a state-supported nonprofit that advocates for community placement in group homes.

“The reality is that there will never be enough resources to meet the needs of a growing and aging population of residents with developmental disabilities within our state if our limited public funds continue to be used to maintain seven large developmental centers with dwindling populations,” Lozano said.

Both Lozano and Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak referred to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision, which requires that disabled residents live in the least restrictive appropriate setting.

Lozano quoted the decision: “Segregation perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that institutionalized people are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life . . . Confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals.”

The families that filed the lawsuits noted that the Supreme Court decision doesn’t require that developmental centers be closed or that residents be forced to move against their will. Instead, it allows less profoundly disabled residents to live in the community.

“For my sister there is no benefit whatsoever that could accrue from community placement and she has lived in North Jersey Developmental Center for 47 years,” Friedman said.

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