Christie Wants Developmentally Disabled in Communities, Not Institutions

Andrew Kitchenman | February 28, 2013 | Health Care
Resolution of lawsuit, additional $80 million in funding, open way to more community placements, services

New Jersey residents with developmental disabilities will have an easier time receiving publicly funded services at home, thanks to additional funding announced by Gov. Chris Christie in his budget address on Tuesday.

Christie said that the state has settled an eight-year-old lawsuit alleging that New Jersey was violating a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision by having too many residents with disabilities live in institutions.

Christie’s announcement of the lawsuit settlement, as well as $83 million in state and federal funding to support community placement and services, was praised by proponents of group homes and for providing services in residents’ homes.

But the people who want the state to keep open two development centers were frustrated and disappointed. They argue that for some residents, living in state-operated institutions is more appropriate.

Both groups have argued vehemently about how the state should spend its limited federal Medicaid funds to care for residents with developmental disabilities.

In his budget address, Christie harshly criticized the state’s use of residential institutions like the developmental centers.

“It is shameful, it is ineffective and — in this administration — it is ending,” Christie said.

The lawsuit was filed in 2005 by Disability Rights New Jersey, a federally funded organization that advocates for residents with disabilities. The lawsuit contended that the state had failed to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision, which required that residents with disabilities live in the least restrictive, appropriate environment.

As a result of the settlement, the state will place at least 600 current developmental center residents in a community settings, such as group homes. Residents will now be considered eligible for community placement when treatment professionals determine that it’s appropriate and the residents or their legal guardians don’t oppose the decision.

Residents or guardians still have the ability to express a preference for developmental centers over community placement. In cases where the residents and their legal guardians disagree about the resident’s placement, Disability Rights New Jersey has been given the power under the settlement to investigate and resolve the situations, according to state officials.

Christie said he was proud to announce the settlement, adding that in response to it, the state has increased funds for community-based services, reduced the waiting list for services provided in residents’ homes, and expanded group homes.

“We’re allowing people with disabilities to live where they and their families want them to live: at home, in the community, among family and friends,” he said.

The $83 million in funding consists of three components: $41.8 million in Christie’s budget proposal for the fiscal year starting on July 1, enough for 788 more residents to receive community services; $21.3 million in the current fiscal year; and $19.7 million to support the state office overseeing the transfer of residents from developmental centers to community placement.

Encouraged by News

Alison Lozano, executive director of the New Jersey Council of Developmental Disabilities, said Christie’s support was encouraging. Her organization advocates for community placement. She was encouraged that Disability Rights New Jersey — an ally of her organization – will monitor the implementation of the settlement.

She said the funding would allow more residents with disabilities to receive occupational training with public funding.

“We hear horror stories about people after they finish school just sitting at home, watching television,” Lozano said. “This is going to give them an opportunity to go out” and be employed.

Lozano said she was encouraged that more funds would be available to move residents out of developmental centers.

“We have to really applaud the Christie administration for seeing that this is the priority overall,” she said.

Supporters of the state developmental centers have disagreed that community placement is appropriate for residents with profound disabilities. They argue that privately operated group homes have a lower level of service, less-qualified workers, and fewer safeguards.

They also have protested the possibility of the state shuttering the only two developmental centers near the heavily populated northeastern corner of the state.

The state is in the process of closing Woodbridge Developmental Center and North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa

Cindy Bartman, whose brother Clifford is a longtime resident of Hunterdon Developmental Center, said she is concerned about funding for these facilities.

“I’m almost appalled at [Christie’s] flagrant use of words such as shameful and ineffective,” Bartman said. “What I find shameful is that our governor is putting the very lives of the profoundly developmentally disabled at stake by failing to understand the very real needs of New Jersey’s developmental centers.”

She is hoping that Christie will support a recently introduced bill (A-3870) that would require developmental centers to be located in each region of the state.

State Division of Developmental Disabilities spokeswoman Pam Ronan said families would have an opportunity to learn about potential benefits of living in the community.

New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities officials said that some of the strongest advocates for community placement are adults with developmental disabilities.

Among them is Bonnie Schuler, a 59-year-old woman who lived in a developmental center between the ages of 2 and 47. She now lives in a Vineland apartment where she receives state-supported services and said she supported Christie’s decision. She recently retired after having worked in a series of jobs, including a position at McDonald’s.

“You can do things out here that you can’t do when you’re in an institution,” said Schuler, who has moderate physical and cognitive disabilities. “You don’t have people telling what you have to do every five minutes.”

Tara Montague, whose 15-year-old daughter Mary has severe physical disabilities, said she was happy that Christie supports funding for families who receive nursing support at home. Mary, who cannot speak but communicates by blinking her eyes and making facial expressions, lives with her parents at their Burlington Township house.

“There’s no way that I would be able to keep her at home” with nursing support, said Montague of Mary, who she described as socially like other 15-year-olds. “It’s hard enough to do with the help, without the help it would just be nearly impossible.”

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