Families of Developmental Center Residents Build Support at Grassroots Level

Andrew Kitchenman | October 30, 2013 | Health Care, More Issues
Advocates aim to sway Christie with local support and billboards, while also pursuing lawsuit

Families fighting to stop the closure of two state developmental centers are trying to build grassroots backing in municipalities as part of their effort to persuade Gov. Chris Christie and legislators.

Save Residents’ Homes at Developmental Centers, a coalition of center supporters, have gathered resolutions from 29 municipal governing bodies opposing the closure of centers in Woodbridge and Totowa.

A state task force decided to close the centers last year, leaving the state’s densely populated northeastern corner without a large facility where people with developmental disabilities can live and receive a variety of services.

Family members have argued that closing the centers – two of seven in the state — will disrupt the residents’ lives and either make it more difficult for family visits to occur or expose residents to a lower level of care in small group homes.

Supporters of the group homes have argued that the residents would be better served living in the community and would receive a similar level of care.

Thirty-eight families of developmental center residents filed a lawsuit in June, alleging that the state violated the constitutional rights of the residents and broke a series of federal laws by deciding the close the facilities.

Joanne St. Amand, whose sister Rosemary Sciarillo has lived in the Woodbridge center for 38 years, has been visiting municipal councils since last year, trying to build local political support. The families also have been reaching out to their state legislators.

“Some of these towns have no idea that we even have developmental centers – it’s an education,” St. Amand said, adding that she focuses on her sister’s experience. “She’s been there since she was 20 and she’s 58 now. It’s her home now and they give excellent care.”

Center supporters argue that the federal standards that the centers must meet, the availability of healthcare professionals at the centers, and the more experienced workers at the developmental centers present advantages over the group homes.

“It’s overwhelming, the support we’ve been getting,” St. Amand said.

Along with pursuing municipal support, the residents’ families paid for a more visible effort to sway the governor: a billboard along Interstate 195 with the message “Governor Christie Please Don’t Evict Us!” along with the group’s the group’s web address and a photo of a severely disabled resident. The billboard was displayed from late June until October 27.

“It definitely helped with the awareness,” St. Amand said, adding that the site’s web traffic increased after the billboard was put up.

Christie has noted that the task force that decided to close the two facilities was empowered to do so as part of an agreement his administration made with the Legislature. He has put the closures in the context of a broader effort to deinstitutionalize residents, which he supports. He said in March that he had no interest in revisiting the issue.

The families feel a sense of urgency. The centers are slated to close by 2017, but some residents have already moved out of the facilities. For example, the Woodbridge Development Center has seen its population drop from 329 residents in August 2012 to 266 residents today.

“We just need to keep going — we need to keep putting our efforts into saving their homes,” St. Amand said. “They don’t know what’s happened when all of the persons they have known in their lives aren’t there any more. They wake up in another place. They don’t understand. It’s unethical. It’s immoral.”

Supporters of group homes have pointed to problems that large institutions have had in the past in providing care to residents. They point out, too, that group homes may be located near developmental center residents’ families. They also dispute the contention that residents receive a higher level of care at the centers than they receive in community group homes, which general have two to four residents.

While group-home supporters tout the opportunities available by living in a community, developmental center residents’ family members have noted that many of the residents are too profoundly disabled to be able to enjoy those opportunities.

The families say their effort to keep the centers open has drawn support from municipalities with both Democrat and Republican governing bodies, ranging from Newark to Mendham Township, where Christie lives.

Metuchen Mayor Thomas Vahalla, a Democrat, said he’s concerned about the effect of the closures on the residents.

“These folks have developed a bit of social network and now you’re going to split them up?” Valhalla said. “To think that we can disperse them into homes in the community and that it will work, because we’re going to save a few dollars, is ludicrous.”

State officials have emphasized that residents and their guardians will only move to group homes if they want to. However, they might then have to move to developmental centers in other parts of the state.

Valhalla thinks state officials should reconsider the impact of the closures on the residents.

“It’s going to be much more difficult for them and their parents to go visit and I think all of those things should be taken into account,” Valhalla said. “If we can’t provide for the least of our people, for the people who have the most needs, it says something about our society and where we’re going.”

Totowa Mayor John Coiro, a Republican, noted that his community’s center has been there for more than 80 years. “Our concern is that the patients that are there are cared for properly once they leave our developmental center here,” Coiro said of the Borough Council resolution opposing the closure.

Both Valhalla and Coiro said they thought the effort was nonpartisan.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) has sponsored a bill, A-395 (S-2596), that would rescind the task force decision to close the centers.

Another of her bills, A-3870 (S-2746), would require that the centers remain open.

She said she applauds the continuing efforts of the families and has made both bills a priority in the remaining weeks of the legislative session. Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), who is challenging Christie for governor, also sponsored the bill rescinding the task force decision to close the centers.