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As Developmental Centers Close, State Touts Benefits of Switch to Group Homes

Disabled residents can live closer to families, state contends, but opponents of closures say speedy schedule for move is reckless

Donna and Pamela Barry
Donna Barry, left, and sister Pamela Barry have lunch with their stepmother Penny Barry and father Carl Barry during a visit to their new home at a community group home in Howell Township.

More than 350 people with serious disabilities are being moved out of the state’s large residential developmental centers into community group homes

State officials are emphasizing that these residents will still receive a good level of care. But some residents’ families say the relocations are happening too quickly and are dangerously reckless.

State Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez visited a group home in Howell Township yesterday, touting the the benefits of having those with intellectual disabilities live closer to their families.

State officials recently announced the timeframe for closing two centers – the North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa will close by June 30, while the Woodbridge Developmental Center will close by the end of the year. This has alarmed some family members, who say the speedy timeframe could will jeopardize the residents’ health.

Benchmark Human Services
Group home in Howell Township is operated by Benchmark Human Services.

The house in Howell, operated by Benchmark Human Services, has four residents, including 54-year-old twin sisters Pamela and Donna Barry, who have lived in developmental centers since the age of 3 due to disabilities resulting from cerebral palsy. Their parents said having them live closer to home has been beneficial.

The clean, spacious house in a rural area is within 25 minutes of both of the sisters’ parents, who are divorced. This cut the travel time by more than half compared with the time it took each parent to reach the Woodbridge Developmental Center. The sisters moved to the Howell home in November.

Dorothy Casey, their mother, said she was pleased with the services her daughters receive from both Benchmark and LADISON Network, which provides services to the sisters during weekdays. Casey said she’s able to visit her daughters more frequently.

“We went through five years of searching for the right place, going to different agencies, interviewing, seeing the houses that they had,” before finding the right opportunity with Benchmark, said Casey, a Lakewood resident. “The waiting was well worth it.”

Deputy Commissioner Dawn Apgar praised Benchmark’s work, saying that they prepared since May to provide services to the Barry sisters.

Their father, Carl Barry, and his wife, Penny Barry, also praised Benchmark and said they were happy to see the sisters more frequently due to the shorter trip.

Velez said the state is committed to moving away from care provided by institutions toward a community-based model.

“This is going to be a growth area for New Jersey – and it should be,” Velez said. “We should have homes in neighborhoods” that look like other houses and are operated by well-credentialed providers.

State officials said community-based group homes cost roughly $160,000 annually for each resident, much less than the annual per-resident cost of more than $300,000 at the developmental centers, a difference attributed in large part to the cost of maintaining and operating the large facilities.

The number of people living in the state’s seven developmental centers has fallen from 3,051 in 2006 to less than 2,000 now. More than 200 residents are moving out of the centers in the fiscal year ending June 30, with another 153 scheduled to move out next year.

The state stopped admitting people to the centers in 2011 as part of the settlement of a lawsuit that alleged that the state wasn’t allowing seriously disabled people to live in the least restrictive and most appropriate setting, a standard set by a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

These changes have dismayed opponents of the closures. Joanne St. Amand, president of the Woodbridge Developmental Center Parents Association, said more time should be taken to make sure residents can move safely to their new homes.

She noted that the state took two years to move one-third of the Woodbridge residents, but now plans to two-thirds of the residents in less than a year.

“The speed is just unbelievable – we were supposed to have five years to do this,” St. Amand said, adding that community group homes work better for people who not severely disabled. State officials said that they have taken appropriate steps to ensure that the transitions go smoothly.

St. Amand added that most developmental center residents’ families have asked that they be moved to other developmental centers rather than group homes. She also said that disabled people or their guardians are being required to sign waivers giving up their right to the comprehensive set of federal services that are offered at the development centers, if they move to group homes. The Medicaid website defines these services as including active treatment, “a continuous, aggressive and consistent implementation of a program of specialized and generic training, treatment, and health or related services, directed toward helping the enrollee function with as much self-determination and independence as possible.”

But the 1999 Supreme Court decision in the Olmstead case, which found that unnecessary institutionalization is a form of discrimination, has led states across the country to emphasize community treatment that requires the waivers.

Velez said she encourages families to visit a number of group homes until they find one that is serving residents with needs that are similar to the needs of their family members.

The remaining residents with disabilities whose families have requested that they move to other developmental centers will have space created for them by other residents moving to group homes.

The closure of the centers may add hours to the trips to other centers, since none of the remaining centers are in the heavily populated northeastern corner of the state, where both of the centers being closed are located.

Velez said the state’s hands were tied by a task force that called for closing the Woodbridge and Totowa facilities.

A group of residents’ families filed a class-action lawsuit last year challenging the closures. In December, a U.S. District Court judge denied class-action status for the group, a decision that they have appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

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