CAU Monthly Board Meeting: A Candid Conversation with Dawn Apgar, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Human Services.

On Monday, August 20th, Community Access Unlimited held their monthly board meeting. However, this month’s meeting was attended by a special guest, Dawn Apgar, the Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Human Services in New Jersey.

Board members, CAU staff members, self advocates and representatives from the NAMPWD were in attendance on Monday night and were privileged to have an informal “Q and A” with the deputy commissioner. Ms. Apgar addressed crucial issues to the disability community, including the closing of New Jersey developmental centers, community housing, waiting lists, waiver applications, and emergency/respite care.

The first issue addressed by Dawn (and the most pressing issue to the self-advocates) was the closing of all New Jersey developmental centers. The deputy commissioner reminded the attendees, that under Governor Christie, two developmental centers are scheduled to close within the next five years. Under the plan approved by the Governor, the two centers must be closed by 2017; ho   wever, between now and 2017, the plan for each closing is unclear. Ms. Apgar informed the attendees and board members that between the two centers, there will be 700 people joining the community upon 2017 and highlighted the demand for housing upon the centers’ closings. One of the main challenges in closing the developmental centers, the Deputy Commissioner noted, was that in closing the centers, the cost of operating the center increases as individuals move out. This poses a challenge in the speed and effectiveness in both placing individuals in proper support and closing the centers completely. In the closing months of 2012, the Division of Developmental Disabilities will be holding meetings with the individuals and families of the developmental centers to determine the next steps and personal care preferences upon the centers’ closings.  Although to the staff, self-advocates, and the NAMPWD team five years is too long for the closure of the centers, Dawn emphasized the daunting task for her team and the state of New Jersey in finding new supports for these individuals.

Next, the Deputy Commissioner addressed housing and the increased demand for accessible housing. In this year’s budget, $40 million was dedicated to qualified developers to create homes that were accessible and affordable for the disability community. The NAMPWD team agrees that this is a step in the right direction in promoting autonomy in the disability community, however, followed up the Commissioner’s statement with questioning as to how this development initiative will enhance the capacity of the Olmstead decision in New Jersey.

Subsequent to the discussion on closing the developmental centers, Dawn Apgar introduced a new prospective on emergency capacity and respite care. Emphasizing the need for change in the DDD’s response to emergency and respite care, Apgar informed the attendees that DDD was looking into ways to make the emergency capacity system a permanent placing for individuals. This suggestion on behalf of the deputy commissioner posed questions as to the semantics of “emergency capacity” and if long term placement in an “ECS”  system is truly possible. Which leads to the following challenge: if ECS becomes a long-term placement system, does labeling the case an “emergency” then become a method to bypass the waiting lists for home placements?

Speaking of, towards the end of the board meeting, the DDD waiting list fell under Apgar’s and the attendee’s scrutiny.  The Deputy Commissioner made a poignant statement when she declared that the waiting list was an issue of harm and hope. Apgar was the first to concede that the waiting list for support and services is too long – the wait time can be as long as a decade – in addition to extremely to discouraging to individuals with disabilities and their families. The waiting list provides false consolation to families and the need is nowhere close to meeting the demand of New Jersey residents. That being said, Dawn Apgar highlighted the paradox that exists around the waiting list: unity. Apgar noted that for years the lengthy list has unified self-advocates, families, and the disability community around its absurdity. It has become a point of contention in which coalitions have formed and families have networked. The waiting list has become a column in which campaigns and advocacy groups have built their coalition. With that kind of paradox surrounding the waiting list, it puts the Division of Developmental Disabilities and Department of Human Services in hard place –the needs of the individuals on the list need to be expedited without sacrificing the community that has formed around it.

Although Dawn Apgar touched on numerous critical issues within the Division of Developmental Disabilities, and an array of challenges that accompany those issues, there was a beam of hope that was cultivated through her candid conversation: room for improvement. As developmental centers permanently shut their doors and individuals with developmental disabilities excel in real communities, Ms. Apgar’s concessions on behalf of the Department of Human Services and optimism towards the changes in state-provided support reveal small steps towards equality in the disability community, even in the face of a mountain of challenges.

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