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Abuse of N.J.'s developmentally disabled continues

pizzurosal073111_optBY SALVATORE PIZZURO
COMMENTARY

During recent weeks and months, the subject of abuse and neglect of adults with developmental disabilities in group homes, nursing homes, and other residential facilities has been well publicized. Often, the abuse of such individuals occurs by low-paid workers in such environments who are angry about job conditions and salary. According to the Nursing Home Abuse Center, residential facilities:

“...are profit-driven businesses and during tough economic times good business practice and quality control can suffer in favor of short-sighted profits, quotas, and corner cutting. Businesses in trouble do not generally announce this; rather, they simply cover their tracks as best as they can. Cutbacks in hours and wages have a great impact on employee attitudes, which can easily translate to mistreatment, neglect, and even abuse...”

In addition, there appears to be a very weak screening process for examining the background of such workers. In fact, it is possible for someone with a criminal record to complete the background check process and become a caregiver to vulnerable individuals in residential settings.

Three lawmakers have recently introduced bills to protect adults with disabilities from such abuse. Senator Jennifer Beck introduced “Tara’s Law”, after investigating the abuse of a 29-year-old woman in a group home who died from such abuse and neglect, weighing just 43 pounds at the end of her life. Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle introduced the Assembly version of Tara’s Law. Furthermore, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner introduced a bill that would hold witnesses to such abuse criminally liable if they become aware of such cases and do not report them.

Still, new cases appear on a regular basis. One such case involves Christel Velez, a 30-year-old woman with developmental disabilities who has complained of abuse and neglect in the group home where she resided. Her sister, Maria Mello, has engaged in voluminous written communications with the Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC) and the New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities, and, still, nothing has been done.

Subsequent to the ongoing complaints, the ARC discharged Christel from the group home, sending her to her sister’s residence, ostensibly in hope that the case would go away.

This writer, upon hearing of the case and reviewing the correspondence, attempted to contact the head of residential services for the ARC, and the communication has gone unanswered.

People with disabilities have their rights egregiously violated on a regular basis. Often, the client who has become a victim, cannot articulate their complaints, or does not have a family member or advocate who is willing to speak for them. In the long run, many group homes and nursing facilities escape accountability. As a result, people with developmental disabilities remain second class citizens who are denied the basic civil and human rights that the non-disabled population enjoys.

Can we, as a state and as a society afford to deny a reasonable quality of life to any group or persons that perhaps some believe to be less worthy of these rights?

Nearly 40 years ago, television news personality Geraldo Rivera uncovered a shocking example of abuse in the now infamous Willowbrook facility in New York. He found people with disabilities who were malnourished and without health care, sitting in their own feces. The result was the deinstitutionalization of developmentally disabled individuals and their placement in community settings. Now, four decades later, we find that many of these vulnerable citizens fare no better in their less segregated surroundings.

As a state and society, we must ask which of us is now expendable. Obviously, many of us would prefer to pretend that the problem does not exist. The easiest way to do that is to pretend that these disabled citizens do not exist. During these difficult economic times, it may be easy to do so. Will we remember this decade as the one in which social genocide became acceptable?

Dr. Salvatore Pizzuro, a Disability Policy Specialist, holds a doctorate in Developmental Disabilities from Columbia University and an advanced degree in Disability Law from New York Law School.

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