Recent developments in Philadelphia highlight the importance of an issue that has been emphasized by New Jersey State Legislators, including Senator Jennifer Beck and Assemblywomen Valerie Huttle and Connie Wagner.
This week, four developmentally disabled adults were found secretly chained and hidden in the basement of a Philly apartment building. The discovery occurred inadvertently, as police were called to the scene to quell a disturbance between the landlord and a tenant. The four victims suffered from malnutrition and abuse and were taken to a hospital for treatment.
Three suspects were arrested and charged with engaging in a conspiracy to collect social security and disability checks that belonged to the disabled victims.
The abuse of people with disabilities has been an often ignored phenomenon and public officials appear hesitant to deal with the issue. Nevertheless, three lawmakers are determined to end abuse and neglect among New Jersyans with developmental disabilities. State Senator Jennifer Beck is the primary sponsor of “Tara’s Law”, a bill designed to protect people with developmental disabilities from physical abuse and neglect in State facilities, foster homes, group homes, and nursing homes in New Jersey. Beck, who has served in the State Legislature since 2006, was motivated to introduce the bill as a result of a tragic episode leading to the death of a patient in a residential facility.
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 [...]”.
This past June, S-1947, or “Tara’s Law” was unanimously endorsed by the Senate Committee on Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens. Senator Beck’s involvement in this bill was in reaction to the abuse and neglect leading to the death of Tara O’Leary, a 29-year-old woman with developmental disabilities. O’Leary weighed only 43 pounds when she died in a facility.
According to Senator Beck, “Although no legislation can bring Tara back to her family that fought so hard to be a part of her life [….] I hope that the advancement of this bill may be of some consolation to her family, and of some comfort to families who currently have loved ones in community care residences. As a society we are judged by how we treat those who are most vulnerable, and it is unacceptable to neglect and abuse individuals who cannot protect themselves. This bill ensures a level of protection and oversight that is necessary to ensure the safe treatment of New Jersey’s developmentally disabled population.”
The Assembly version of Tara’s Law, A-2966, was introduced by Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle; it is hoped that it will be posted for a hearing with the Assembly Human Services Committee, which Huttle chairs.
Assemblywoman Concetta "Connie" Wagner is a primary sponsor of A-799, a bill that would require the reporting of the mistreatment of individuals with developmental disabilities. Wagner has been a member of New Jersey Assembly since January 8, 2008, representing the 38th legislative district.
Assembly Bill 799 would require “the reporting of suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation of a vulnerable adult by a health care professional, law enforcement officer, fire-fighter, paramedic or emergency medical technician who has reasonable cause to believe that a vulnerable adult is the subject of abuse, neglect or exploitation. Health care professionals subject to this requirement would include those employed at health care facilities, correctional facilities, developmental centers, and congregate living facilities.”
Currently, no law mandates or requires anyone to report suspected abuse or neglect of vulnerable or disabled adults. Wagner is determined to prevent such crimes from going unreported.
The issue of abuse of people with disabilities in State and private facilities has been largely ignored. Patients with special needs are often unequipped to report episodes of mistreatment or are afraid to do so. Assemblywoman Wagner’s bill would make it a crime to fail to report such occurrences when one becomes aware of them. In any case, Connie Wagner is determined to see that our vulnerable citizens are not abandoned.
The shocking case in Philadelphia is not an aberration. The abuse of people with developmental disabilities continues among a population that is unable to complain or report the mistreatment. Fortunately, lawmakers like Beck, Huttle, and Wagner will not abandon them.
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.