BY SALVATORE PIZZURO
On April 29, 2013, the full New Jersey Assembly approved a bill to keep two New Jersey Developmental Centers open. The bill, A-3870, was passed as a result of the work of Assemblywoman Valerie Vanieri Huttle and the members of the Human Services Committee, which she chairs.
One year ago, a task force was created by the Governor and met to determine the fate of the Vineland Developmental Center. At the time, the residents of that region of the State argued that closing the center would be devastating for the economy in that region.
Consequently, on August 1, 2012 the taskforce recommended that Vineland remain open and that the Developmental Centers in Totowa and Woodbridge be closed, instead. The decision was considered binding by the Governor and set off a fire storm of protests in northern New Jersey. One argument was that there would be no such centers in the northern part of the State. Another argument was that many of the people with developmental disabilities who are served by such centers could not survive in community environments.
The bill requires that there be at least one developmental center in the north, central, western and southern regions of New Jersey.
According to a statement by the Human Services Committee:
“Under the bill, the western region is to consist of Hunterdon, Somerset, Sussex, and Warren counties; the northern region is to consist of Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Morris, Passaic, and Union counties; the central region is to consist of Mercer, Middlesex, and Monmouth counties; and the southern region is to consist of Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean, and Salem counties.”
The families of the residents of the centers expressed concern that their developmentally disabled loved ones would be transferred to another site where relatives would be unable to visit them. The Assembly statement addresses the issue as follows:
“The bill further requires that in the case of a transfer of a resident from one developmental center to another, the commissioner is to equally consider: the resident's medical needs; the resident's social needs; and the distance between the resident's family or guardian, as appropriate, and the proposed developmental center to which the resident is to be transferred, in order to permit continuation of the resident's relationship with the family or the guardian”
A joint hearing of the Assembly Human Services and Senate Health Committees was held at Montclair State University in February. More than 600 people attended the hearing, protesting the closing of the developmental centers. Nevertheless, the Governor has stated that regardless of public opinion or the work of the State Legislature, he will close the two centers. It is the belief of many that his decision is based on money and not the welfare of the disability community. During the February hearing, experts reported data that suggests that transferring residents to other centers or community settings will result in inadequate medical care and higher death rates. Nevertheless, the Governor has appeared to be unmoved by this data.
The State Legislature and the Governor will do battle over this issue during the coming months. Let us hope that it is remembered that the welfare of the disabled residents should be the issue. The Governor represents all New Jerseyans, including those with disabilities and the non-disabled, alike. Let us also hope that the members of the disability community, already treated as second class citizens, are not considered to be expendable.