Community Homes Replace Large NJ Centers for People with Serious Disabilities

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March 12, 2014; NJ Spotlight


New Jersey is in the process of moving people with serious disabilities out of large residential development centers into smaller, community-based group homes. The first 350 (200 by the end of June and 150 during the next fiscal year) are in the process of moving out of two centers, the North Jersey Developmental Center and the Woodbridge Developmental Center. The North Jersey Center in Totawa will close by June 30th, which some family members of the residents believe is too fast. Other opponents of the closures suggest that the community homes work well for people whose disabilities are not particularly severe, but should be maintained for persons with very serious disabilities.

The NJ Spotlight article describes one of the community homes, operated by Benchmark Human Services in Howell, New Jersey. Two residents, twin sisters Pamela and Donna Barry, have lived in developmental centers since the age of three due to their cerebral palsy. Their mother said she is happy with the services they are getting from Benchmark and with the proximity of Howell to the family home, enabling her to visit her daughters more frequently. 

The state believes that community homes are preferable to large developmental centers if credentialed providers operate them. Data suggest that the community group homes cost $160,000 a year per resident, compared to more than $300,000 per resident at the developmental centers. 

The population of the state’s seven developmental centers was 3,051 in 2006 but has been reduced to less than 2,000. A lawsuit, settled in 2011, charged that the state wasn’t allowing persons with disabilities to live in the least restrictive and most appropriate settings they could, which led the state to cease admitting people to the developmental centers. 

Some family members, however, have another concern. Unlike the mother of the Barry twins, they complain that the new community homes are not located in major population centers and therefore will be geographically more distant for most families. Despite the 2011 settlement, some family members are now suing the state to reverse that decision and keep the centers open and admitting. 

No social policy decision ever seems to meet with unanimous support. While the state may be reducing and shutting the developmental centers mostly because of a need to comply with the court order, the shift to community homes seems to make sense from a perspective of the needs of persons with disabilities.—Rick Cohen

  • A Concerned Citizen

    Governor Christie is on a mission to cut expenditures by any means possible which entails increasing group homes for the disabled at the expense of closing developmental centers which are lifelong homes for the profoundly disabled.
    Many of the residents at developmental centers are severely mentally disabled with little to no cognitive abilities combined with speech, vision and many other developmental complications and they are our most vulnerable citizens.

    They are HUMAN BEINGS with individual and varying needs, not bags of rice. This issue should not be treated with a one-size-fits all solution. Sure there are some higher functioning disabled individuals that may be able to thrive well at home or in community Group Homes but to strip away the life-long home of many of the severely disabled individuals who heavily rely on the around the clock personal care, safety and medical staff that they are provided at developmental centers would be morally corrupt.

    Christie’s plan, based on recommendations from a biased taskforce that he hand selected, did NOT include key stakeholders such as parents/guardians. His plan entails transferring clients from developmental centers to community housing or to a remote developmental center far out of reach of the disabled clients’ families and is dismissive of their input.

    Group homes for the disabled is riddled with risks and problems for those with severe mental and physical disabilities, including higher rates of mortality and a greater risk of being abused in the general community. Those living in group homes waive their rights, under the Community Care Waiver. Under the State’s game of smoke and mirrors would have the public to believe that group homes would provide the same or better level of protections afforded to those thriving in home-like developmental centers, who receive FEDERALLY MANDATED levels of care.

    Christie claims “de-institutionalization” is a “mandate” or a “court order” of the “Olmstead” Supreme Court decision when in reality nowhere in the Olmstead decision does it say that all people with disabilities must be transferred to the community.

  • Tamie Hopp

    I represent VOR (, a national, nonprofit organization advocating for high quality care and human rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

    The situation featured in this article is incredibly complex. It is polarizing, as Mr. Cohen recognizes, but also not black or white, one-size-fits all either. The human condition is simply not that convenient. The individuals served in New Jersey’s Developmental Centers have profound intellectual disabilities requiring help in all aspects of daily care, as well as additional physical disabilities and medical or behavioral challenges.

    The Centers are akin to hospital ICUs and here is where the “one-size-fits-all” consideration is easiest understood. We all recognize the need for hospital ICUs for patient need, specialized care, and cost-effectiveness. Not every person needs ICU-level support, but for those who do, it’s life-sustaining and hopefully life-saving. On the flip side, it would be a ridiculous notion (and ridiculously expensive) to serve every, or even most, injured or ill patients in the ICU. The same is true for disabled individuals. Most don’t need Developmental Center care but it’s life-risking to remove those who do and place them in unlicensed small settings with untrained staff. Tragedies are predictable and widespread.

    The families/legal guardians, whose opinion about their loved ones with profound intellectual disabilities should matter most, understand this and are right to fight in court and in the legislature. They were not part of the lawsuit settled in 2011 and actively opposed the claims about community demand (their own survey of residents and families found very different results).

    Cost comparisons are a whole other layer for discussion, which I’ll set aside for now. Suffice it to say, as Center populations were artificially decreased, costs soared. Allowing admissions for those who need and choose this level of care would solve the cost problem. In short, it’s a problem of NJ’s own making – meanwhile 8,000 New Jersyans suffer for lack of care on a waiting list!

    Mr. Cohen did a decent job laying out the debate – the background and sides taken in this complex debate. I respectfully disagree, however, with his conclusion in support of closures.