More Public Scrutiny May Await Facilities Housing Poorer NJ Residents

Andrew Kitchenman | December 18, 2014 | Health Care
Bill would require state to post health and safety inspection reports on boarding homes, homeless shelters

Assemblywoman Celeste M. Riley (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem)
New Jerseyans who live in boarding homes or homeless shelters — as well as the agencies that place people in these facilities — don’t have easy access to health and safety reports by state and local inspectors.

That would change under a bipartisan proposal advancing in the Legislature that would require the state Department of Community Affairs to post those reports on its website.

Bill sponsor Assemblywoman Celeste M. Riley (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem) said at a hearing on the bill, S-1856, that it is important to provide transparent information for people who may be at a low point in their lives.

She asked people to imagine “if your son or daughter needs to use one of these facilities and you have no way of finding out whether or not they’re in good hands.”

Riley said it’s important for society to help the residents of such facilities.

“We have to make sure we’re doing the most we can to make sure they’re taken care of with respect and that the facility that they’re in is clean and it’s not actually contributing to the hardships that they’re facing,” she said.

Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth) said she’s been disturbed by reports of violations at facilities in Ocean County.

“Many of these places are very well-run, but there are some exceptions,” Angelini said, adding that she was “a little bit offended” that DCA officials had expressed concern about the additional work that would be involved in implementing the bill.

That concern is likely rooted in the relatively small staff available to do the inspections, noted Mary Lynne Reynolds, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Southwestern New Jersey, which provides advocacy and training related to mental-health issues. The state Division of Codes & Standards has staff members responsible for inspecting 700 facilities, forcing them to “triage” complaints that they receive, she said.

“There really needs to be a larger staff to enforce these regulations,” she said. The bill doesn’t provide for additional funding for the division.

Since homeless shelters and boarding houses are inspected by local and county officials, the bill would also require them to submit their reports for posting on the DCA website.

If an inspection reveals a serious health and safety violation, the report would have to be posted on the website within 72 hours, under the bill, which would also require DCA to post news of any suspensions of facility licenses within the same time period. The department would also be required to post information on changes in a facility’s status as it corrects violations or its suspension ends.

In addition, the bill would prohibit moving anyone into facilities that have serious health or safety violations or suspensions until the violations are corrected or the suspensions lifted.

Barbara Johnston, advocacy director for the Mental Health Association of New Jersey, said the bill would benefit the 17,000 people in New Jersey who live in the facilities covered by the measure.

“Some of them are very good models of care,” especially those that are nonprofits, but the majority aren’t, she said.

Johnston said the provision that bars placement of residents in facilities that have violations would serve as a strong incentive for facility operators to make improvements quickly.

“We don’t want people placed in homes that are unsafe and have outstanding violations of a serious nature,” she said.

The bill gained broad support, including backing by the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Supportive Housing of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Dietetic Association.

The Assembly voted in favor of the bill 75-2 on Monday. The Senate is scheduled to vote on it today. The hearing in which the Assembly Human Services Committee released the bill was in September.