As we are still within the opening weeks of New Jersey’s 215th State Legislature, opportunities present themselves for improving the lives of New Jersey’s most vulnerable citizens. For the last three years, there has been a great deal of discussion and debate about the abuse of the most vulnerable members of our society. It appears that a significant amount of abuse occurs against those with developmental disabilities. This vulnerable population suffers from what may be an epidemic of punishing treatment because they are unable to protect themselves. This abuse may be physical in nature, or it may be overt neglect, or financial or legal abuse. In essence, these voiceless citizens become prey for malignant personalities.
People with developmental disabilities often lack an understanding of social norms, have poor or zero interpersonal skills, and have little knowledge of appropriate behavior. Furthermore, their limited communication prowess also stifles their self-advocacy skills.
In 2009, State Senator Jennifer Beck introduced "Tara’s Law," which was designed to prevent such abuse. The bill was re-introduced by Beck, once again, during this session of the State Legislature, as Senate bill 599. Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle has re-introduced the bill in the lower house and referred it to the Assembly Human Services Committee, which she chairs, as bill 2672. The original version of the bill was inspired by Senator Beck’s reaction to the fate of Tara O’Leary, an adult woman with a developmental disability, who was literally “abused to death” in a nursing facility, and weighed little more than forty pounds at the end.
Studies also indicate that members the developmentally disabled population often become victims of peer abuse. Socialization, in itself, becomes a major challenge. As we discuss the ongoing issues for these individuals, such as appropriate living accommodations and the endless waiting list for housing, we must not lose sight of the fact that these people are much more likely to become the victims of crime than the non-disabled population. Unfortunately, legislative concepts, such as Tara’s Law, linger without support for several sessions of the State Legislature without receiving proper attention. Let us hope that the 215th Legislature will change that.
People with disabilities continue to struggle for basic civil and human rights in areas of life that the non-disabled population takes for granted, such as housing, medical care, transportation, and community acquiescence. Let us hope that this session of the State Legislature will mark a new beginning, in which progress toward “equity in civil and human rights” is affirmed and implemented.
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.