Christie’s stance doesn’t bode well for DD centers on closure list

Nearly three weeks ago at a hearing at Montclair State University, several residents living at the North Jersey Developmental Center and the Woodbridge Developmental Center expressed opposition to their impending closures, following a task force’s recommendations.

Many feared that being placed in community and group homes that the Olmstead Supreme Court decision calls for in order to lower the population at developmental disabilities institutions, would mean a significantly lower level of care.

While the residents would technically have a choice of whether they want to switch or not, the idea of moving as far as 120 miles south to the Vineland Developmental Disabilities Center in Cumberland County, which is where many would theoretically go if they don’t prefer community settings, seems impractical.

The attendees at that hearing overwhelmingly saw gloom and doom. But on Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie struck a considerably different tone. He saw his administration’s increased focus of moving residents from institutions to group homes – formally known as “rebalancing” – as a positive sign.

“We all know New Jersey’s sad history of over institutionalization,” Christie said in his budget address Tuesday. “It is shameful. It is ineffective. And in this administration it is ending.”

Christie is moving forward to put more community and group homes in place. For the fiscal year 2014 budget, he has proposed more than $41 million for community placements for nearly 800 residents.

That is probably not what residents and employees of the North Jersey Developmental Center and Woodbridge Center wanted to hear. They would probably disagree wholeheartedly that they are ineffective.

One group, the Save Residents’ Homes at Development Centers, said that community providers are not held to the same federally mandated standard of care as developmental centers.

“Even increasing services in the community does not afford our family members the same level of care that they receive in the developmental centers where they must meet federal standards,” said Cindy Bartman, a group representative. “If the governor wants the developmentally disabled to live where they and their family members want, then for the severely disabled that is in developmental centers where we know they are well cared for.”

While the joint Health Committee hearing at Montclair was intended to put some pressure on the administration to reconsider, it doesn’t appear, at this point anyway, to be working. As recently as Wednesday, on his NJ101.5 show, “Ask the Governor,” Christie said those two centers will close.

Many at the Montclair hearing believed the decision to close those centers was purely political, after Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1) of Dennis, lobbied strongly to keep open the Vineland Developmental Disabilities Center. That center was originally recommended for closure by Christie’s own Human Services Department Commissioner Jennifer Velez.

But Van Drew made a strong case that the center’s closure would have a detrimental effect on the employment rate in Cumberland County, which already suffers from one of the higher unemployment rates of the state’s counties.

Just like Vineland was allowed to remain intact, Sen. Joe Vitale (D-19) of Woodbridge, is hopeful, last-minute second thoughts will save the day. His Senate Health Committee will hear a bill he sponsored that essentially calls for rescinding the findings of the commission, which was set up as a result of fellow Sen. Van Drew’s legislation. That commission, which mostly consisted of members sympathetic to having Vineland remain open, recommended closing the Woodbridge and North Jersey centers. Their findings are binding.

The bill, S2596, would require that at least one center be in each region of the state and have various factors be taken into consideration that apparently weren’t by the commission.

“The (Olmstead) lawsuit doesn’t require that you shut down institutions,” Vitale said in a telephone interview. “It requires that the population be reduced.

“I am hopeful they (the administration) will do the right thing.”

In total, more than 600 residents live at the two centers and some 2,000 employees work there.

Passaic County Freeholder Pat Lepore, who has many constituents working at the North Jersey center, mentioned at the hearing the dire employment impact such a closure would have.

“We cannot afford to lose these jobs as well,” he said. “This is unacceptable. This should not be the approach our state government should be taking.”