New Brunswick resident Jackie Guillot said she is reliving a family nightmare.
In 1972, her mother began a five-year effort to have Jackie’s brother, George Guillot, moved from the Woodbine Developmental Center — the large state residential facility for people with intellectual disabilities, which the family was unable to visit due to the distance.
While the family was ultimately successful in moving George to the nearby Woodbridge Developmental Center — where he lived for 37 years — with Woodbridge’s impending closure, George is back at Woodbine.
When she learned of the transfer, Jackie Guillot said: “I spent three hours on the phone pleading: ‘Please do not move my brother three hours away from me.’ ”
She is among other family members of residents of the Woodbridge center, set for closure by the end of the year, who are making last-minute pleas to state officials to prevent cross-state transfers to distant facilities.
But logistical hurdles are leaving many of these family members like Guillot filled with anguish, as a 2011 law makes many long-distance trips a near-certainty.
Guillot said her own disabilities — including lupus — make it impossible for her to visit George. While she said that George is happy at his new home, she feels cut off from her only remaining family member.
“Don’t you get it?” she asked a group of senior state Department of Human Services officials at a public hearing yesterday on the Woodbridge closure. “You’re tearing families apart.”
The closures of the Woodbridge facility and the North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa were the result of the 2011 law, which established a state task force that made a binding recommendation in 2012 that the two facilities be closed within five years (with many patients moved to group homes and the others moved to three facilities in Southern and Western Jersey)
The Totowa facility was emptied of residents earlier this year, while there are only 87 residents left at Woodbridge, compared with the 370 who lived there in late 2010.
Supporters of the centers say that they provide more comprehensive services, including 24-7 access to onsite medical staff, than what is available at the smaller group homes.
But they have also emphasized that the centers are the only homes that many of the residents have had for their adult lives, in some cases more than 40 years. In addition, many of the residents have very elderly parents who are unable to travel long distances frequently.
But long trips are nearly inevitable due to the closures of the only two facilities located in the state’s densely populated northeastern counties.
The law that determined which facilities would close was stacked in favor of Vineland Developmental Center, since the task force was required to consider the economic impact of closures on nearby communities but wasn’t required to consider the impact of separating residents from nearby family members. Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland), whose district was near the Vineland center, sponsored the law.
The state is on a long-term course to further decrease the number of developmental center residents. The state has stopped new placements of residents at the centers, citing a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires that residents with disabilities live in the least restrictive, appropriate setting.
New placements of residents with intellectual disabilities are now generally in group homes, which state officials and group-home providers say allow residents to live in communities, often near family members.
In addition, group homes are frequently less expensive, potentially allowing more people to benefit from state services and reducing the state’s long wait list for those services.
The moves have drawn support from organizations that represent residents with intellectual disabilities.
State Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez said the state is working with individual families to find appropriate placements, with residents transferred to closer developmental centers “as often as we can make that happen.” She noted that the closure of the two facilities in heavily populated areas led to transportation problems.
Opponents of the center closures argue that group homes cannot equal the services available to center residents with profound disabilities. They say the state has focused on the “least restrictive” clause of the Supreme Court decision without giving enough weight to the court’s requirement that the facility must be appropriate for the residents.
Some families filed a lawsuit fighting the closures, which wasn’t successful in U.S. District Court. The families have appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Joanne St. Amand, whose sister Rosemary is a longtime resident of the Woodbridge facility , noted that two residents died after transferring from developmental centers into group homes. State officials, while declining to discuss individual cases, have said that there was “no causal connection” between the residents’ deaths and their transfers from the developmental centers.
David Petruzziello, 80, of Toms River said he felt like he had no input in the state’s decision to relocate his 74-year-old sister Bette to the Woodbine Developmental Center in Cape May County from Woodbridge. He had indicated in response to a state questionnaire that he would like to see Bette live in the Hunterdon Developmental Center if she had to move from Woodbridge. He said he never heard from the state why she couldn’t move to Hunterdon, but was told by a Woodbine official that Hunterdon didn’t have room.
“I never was consulted, and I think I should have at least had some input on any kind of decision, whether it had been Woodbine or anywhere,” he said.