June 19, 2011; Source: Daily Herald (Associated Press) |  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is planning to shut down several facilities for the severely disabled in order to save $1.6 million in the state budget. The Vineland Development Center, for example, is home to 350 women, like Karen Lee Colletti, with severe disabilities. Colletti has severe autism, barely speaks, and was moved to the Vineland Center when she was 27 because her parents couldn’t care for her at home any longer. Twenty-nine years later, she is still at the Vineland Development Center, but her 80-year-old father can’t imagine what he will do when the state shutters the facility in 2013.

Apparently, New Jersey has been lagging behind other states in reducing the number of people living in developmental centers. Some people should be moved to community-based group homes when it is possible, but that hasn’t happened as quickly as it should according to organizations such as Disability Rights New Jersey, which has been suing the state to force the closure of developmental centers. Disability Rights believes that large self-contained developmental centers like Vineland — two campuses on 250 acres containing over 40 buildings, many from the 19th century — are outmoded remnants of an archaic treatment approach that segregated the developmentally disabled away from general society. Nonetheless, New Jersey had seven developmental centers containing 5,700 people in 2010. 

Governor Christie says he wants to close Vineland not for budgetary reasons, but for helping the residents. It costs $260,000, including health costs, in state and federal money for someone to live in a developmental center, but only $160,000, perhaps with another $12,000 for medical treatment, for someone who has been moved from a developmental center to a community-based group home. The plan to shut Vineland and other centers would move the residents to much smaller group homes operated by nonprofit and for-profit providers, such as the Atlantic County facility operated by the nonprofit Arc which has been accepting women deinstitutionalized from Vineland. Advocates such as Disability Rights believe that the centers simply aren’t necessary, that just about anyone can live in a well run, adequately staffed group home.

In Vineland, the surrounding community is averse to the closing of the facility, partly because of the business it generates for vendors, but partly because of employment. With many developmental center staff working directly for the state, the average direct-care worker at Vineland earns a salary of $44,000. The average Vineland Center worker has been there for 13 years. At Arc of Atlantic County, starting salary for staff is $10 an hour.  Given that the deinstitutionalization of developmental center residents will require the creation of many new group homes, it is a scenario of replacing modest salaries (Vineland is in southern New Jersey) with close-to-minimum wage earnings. 

Should large state developmental centers be replaced with smaller, frequently nonprofit group homes? To what extent is the closing of the developmental centers an issue of preferred treatment for the severely disabled or a cost-cutting issue?  To what extent do the wages of state employees at developmental centers versus the low hourly earnings of group home staff factor into the decision?  Is it true that virtually all people can be shifted from developmental centers to small group homes?  What looks like a budget issue in the midst of Governor Christie’s budget-cutting fervor is really a much more multifaceted issue of policy and treatment.—Rick Cohen