Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee and the Assembly Human Services Committee Joint Hearing on the Closure of State Developmental Centers- February 13, 2013

On February 13th, 2013, the New American Movement participated in a frenzied joint hearing at Montclair State University regarding New Jersey’s decision to close two state developmental centers by 2017 as per the recommendations of Governor Christie’s Task Force on the Closure of State Developmental Centers. For about five hours, hundreds of families of residents at North Jersey and Woodbridge developmental centers beseeched the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee and the Assembly Human Services Committee to attempt to overturn the task force’s binding recommendations. The hearing commenced with an acknowledgement that the Department of Human Services was invited but failed to attend the hearing, provoking disdain from the audience. Subsequently, various freeholders from Passaic County lamented their presence at the meeting; this certainly left a bitter taste in the mouths of the New American Movement as testimony from affected families began their incessant pleas with a remark proclaiming that developmental centers are the most appropriate setting for their children.

Aside from the fact that many parents do not believe their children would be properly supported in the community, their discontent with the decision of the task force is due to a variety of reasons: the presumed role of politics in the final decision, an outlet for achieving a balanced budget, the perceived disruption it could cause in the residents’ lives, high levels of unemployment in Middlesex and Passaic counties and the distance of Vineland developmental center. To enhance their argument, many parents recounted personal experiences of the ways developmental center staff have changed or revitalized the lives of their loved ones.

Conversely, a small group of parents offered a pragmatic approach regarding their concern of the viability of community supports. Their comments are derived from the finding that many adults with significant disabilities (Level 4 via Olmstead decision) are cared for in institutional settings. In order to alleviate the transition from developmental centers to the community, they requested assurance from the Christie Administration to provide the same level of care in the community through housing, day programs, high quality staff, oversight regulations via CMS and a comprehensive constellation of medical services. This can be achieved by creating a law that would subsidize families through a waiver designed for level 4 adults. Although their testimony is in line with those fighting to keep the centers open, the New American Movement believes their suggestion deserves recognition, and is a proposal that should be further examined in political discourse.

Throughout the day, parents asserted that government should divert their attention to the ongoing issue of the waiting list rather than placing the burden on residents of developmental centers and their families. Citing that the average wait time for community services is 8-12 years, parents counterclaim that community supports are unable to address everyone’s needs in a timely fashion. Moreover, they believe the levels of mortality and abuse increase in the community, as provider agencies are not obliged to follow federal guidelines. While the New American Movement strongly advocates for the discontinuation of the waiting list, our bottom line is that everyone can have fulfilled lives in the community, while meeting their individual needs.

Evidently, the New American Movement was outnumbered. However, we had a sigh of relief when we learned that fellow supporters of community living were present for the hearing. Tom Baffuto, executive director of the Arc of NJ, Dan Keating, executive director of the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, and Deborah Good, a representative of the New Jersey Association of Community Providers, propounded that although they did not choose for the centers to be closed, they are able to serve those opting to live in the community. Recognizing the concerns of parents, all three attempted to soothe the masses by noting that they their organizations serve people with identical needs. Although it will take some time to adjust to the closures’ impact, each agreed that with the right supports and resources, everyone could live in the community.

Like our fellow confidantes, the New American Movement strongly opposes the large congregation of people with disabilities. With that in mind, there is no reason why we cannot continue to develop programs that contain quality and professionalism. The closure of developmental centers will allow New Jersey to better serve the exponential waiting list that inhibits the desires of community integration.

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