A panel of New Jersey legislators grappled yesterday with the effects of a state decision to close two residential centers for people with intellectual disabilities.
The familes of residents at the Woodbridge and North Jersey developmental centers, as well union officials who represent center workers, appealed to the Legislature to keep the centers open.
Representatives of group homes also testified at the joint hearing of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee and the Assembly Human Services Committee at Montclair State University.
The families were objecting to the July decision of a state task force to shutter the government-operated centers within five years. They contended that privately operated group homes cannot deliver the same level of service. North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa serves roughly 340 residents; Woodbridge, roughly 320.
Representatives of the group homes made the case that they would be able to provide the same level of services for residents whose families want them to live in the community.
It would be difficult for the legislators to reverse the decision of the task force, which made binding recommendations.
Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) said the closures were “based on factors we don’t support,” adding “We don’t have the confidence that what the state is proposing to do can be accomplished at the level that supports the acuity or the needs of the residents.”
Vitale noted that a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, known as the Olmstead decision, established three requirements for community placement; that it is appropriate to the needs of the individual; is not opposed by the people with disabilities or their guardians; and can be reasonably accommodated by community providers.
“I think at this point we’ve failed all three,” Vitale said. He asked legislators to “look through a lens that’s not political,” adding that he grew up near the Woodbridge Center and considers the residents to be neighbors. He added that it would take support from the entire Legislature to reverse the task force decision.
Vitale also questioned whether it’s reasonable to move residents to other developmental centers, which could be 120 miles farther away from their families.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense from a medical perspective, it doesn’t make sense from a moral perspective.”
But Dan Keating, executive director of community provider advocacy organization the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, said community group homes are already meeting the needs of residents with profound disabilities.
“This might be a way to use more money to serve more people,” Keating said.
According to Keating, “ultimately, with the right supports and the right resources, everyone could live in the community.”
Keating said he witnessed the 1987 closure of Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Pennsylvania. Residents with disabilities who lived at the facility, he noted, had successful experiences living in the community.
Keating’s case was reinforced by Deborah Good, a representative of the New Jersey Association of Community Providers. She responded to a concern raised by the families that the developmental center workers are more qualified than those at community homes.
“We need to develop supports in the community and redeploy some of the same staff,” Good said. “If the salaries were the same, I think we’d have a smooth transition.”
She said there’s no reason why North Jersey residents couldn’t keep their family members with disabilities nearby.
“People are being placed out of developmental centers successfully,” Good said.
Pleading Their Case
Family members pleaded with the legislators for help keeping the centers open.
Englewood resident Sam Friedman, coguardian of his sister Jacqueline, said that if she had to move to one of the developmental centers in South Jersey, it would be “the gulag” for her. His sister was born with both Down syndrome and brain damage from her umbilical cord breaking, and has lived at North Jersey for 47 years of the 48 years of her life.
The closures are due to a “political wind that is undeniable, but have literally nothing to do with the needs of our helpless loved ones,” Friedman said.
Virginia O’Brien, whose 51-year-old daughter Catherine lives at Woodbridge, said she is concerned about residents who move to group homes but then have growing health problems.
“Community homes aren’t able to provide the necessary quality of care,” which leads to residents being moved to nursing homes that don’t specialize in treating people with disabilities.
Sen. Samuel D. Thompson (R-Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean) noted that the state has promised that residents will only be moved to group homes if their families want them to live in the community and the placements scan provide the appropriate services.
Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) testified in favor of keeping the centers open.
“The most appropriate location [for the residents] is where they are at today,” Diegnan said. “A society is gauged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. These residents don’t have a voice, they don’t have the ability to sit before you today and explain their circumstances.”
Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen and Passaic) questioned why the state would be moving residents from developmental centers to community placements when it already has a list of thousands who want to live in the group homes.
“To me it doesn’t make sense logically,” Wagner said, adding that the state needs “to take of the people who need the help now and are asking for the help now.”
Finding the Funds
Part of the problem stems from the need to finance both developmental centers and group homes with limited federal Medicaid funds.
Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth) said she is confident that community providers can meet the needs of more residents with disabilities. “We have to be sure that these agencies have the money to offer those supports,” she said.
Angelini noted that the crowd at the legislative hearing was oppsed to closing the centers, but that there are thousands of families that prefer community placements.
“I’m sure that the fear of change is something that’s really driving this as well,” she said.
The Arc of New Jersey Executive Director Thomas Baffuto said that community providers could meet the needs of developmental center residents, while also serving some of the 8,000 residents who are on a waiting list for community placement.
“I think there is a good plan to address the waiting list,” Baffuto said, adding that the state no longer needs all seven of its developmental centers.
Baffuto said his organization believes all residents with intellectual disabilities should live in the community, but he said it is not actively advocating for that now since the state isn’t ready for it.
His organization’s county chapters serve roughly 1,000 of the 5,500 residents who live in group homes.
The legislators heard more than five hours of testimony at the hearing, which drew a crowd of about 500.