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Bills Would Protect Developmentally Disabled from Abuse and Neglect

Family members urge state to more closely monitor workers at group homes and similar facilities

Thomas Komninos and Martha Cray
Martha Cray of Roselle Park, whose son has lived in different residential facilities, speaks in favor of laws aimed at protecting the developmentally disabled. Listening is Thomas Komninos, whose 22-year-old son Stephen died in 2007 from choking on food while unsupervised at a group home.

Family members of New Jerseyans with developmental disabilities, alleging widespread instances of abuse – and subsequent cover-ups -- are pushing for a law that would bolster state oversight of caregivers.

Legislators have introduced two bills: A-1109/S-896, which aims to protect adults with developmental disabilities, and A-3619/S-3629, which is specifically aimed at protecting children with disabilities.

The first bill is named Stephen Komninos’ Law, after a 22-year-old man with intellectual disabilities who died in 2007 from choking on food while unsupervised at a group home.

The second bill is named after Tyler Banuls, who legislators said was abused by his peers and neglected by those responsible for providing services to him.

“These individuals are easily vulnerable to abuse and in many cases they are not able to speak up,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who along with Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer (D-Bergen and Passaic) sponsored the legislation.

The bills would require the state to make at least three unannounced site visits each year to facilities and programs serving people with developmental disabilities to check whether there is any danger of abuse or neglect by caregivers.

In addition, the legislation would require facilities to notify family members within two hours if a resident with disabilities has been injured. The state would be required to verify the severity of an injury within two days.

The legislation would also increase the penalties for case managers or supervisors who fail to report an incident from a disorderly persons offense, subject to up to six months of imprisonment and a $1,000 fine, to a fourth-degree crime, subject to up to 18 months of imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Advocates for the bills said the tougher penalities would also make it less likely that a person guilty of such an offense could get a similar job serving people with disabilities in the future.

Thomas Komninos, Stephen’s father, said the bill named after his son isn’t a “cure-all,” but sends a message to both providers and to the state Department of Human Services, the agency responsible for providing services to adults with developmental disabilities.

“Maybe by strengthening the laws that protect the disabled, they’ll get a signal that people on this side of the street in Trenton are concerned and are watching and are taking steps to improve things and save lives,” Komninos said.

Roselle Park resident Martha Cray said her 30-year-old son Billy, who has lived in different residential facilities since he was 10, has been subject to sexual and physical assaults that state investigations found to be “unsubstantiated.”

She noted that schools must inform parents immediately when a student is injured. “Why can’t all New Jersey facilities (for the developmentally disabled) do the same?” Cray asked.

Rita O’Grady of Union Township, Hunterdon County, said she would like to see the Legislature do even more to protect people like her 22-year-old son Tyler, who is autistic and has been diagnosed with mental illness. O’Grady, a registered nurse, said people with disabilities would benefit from the state requiring certification for individuals who work with the developmentally disabled.

“They’re entry-level,” O’Grady said. “They simply don’t have the knowledge, training, education and skill to effectively manage” people with conditions like autism and bipolar disorder.

The legislation strikes a responsible balance, according to Thomas Baffuto, executive director of the Arc of New Jersey, which provides services and also advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Several parents objected to a provision of the legislation that would allow facility providers to, in “extraordinary circumstances,” delay family notification for up to eight hours.

Baffuto said this would only occur during night shifts, when facilities have fewer staff on duty.

But O’Grady opposed that provision, saying “the more that we open that gap, the more we allow for cover-ups, adding that “it takes 10 seconds” to make a phone call.

The Assembly Human Services Committee unanimously released the bills earlier this month.

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