By Brenda Flanagan
You don’t notice Jennifer Sullivan’s autism, at first. Her sunny personality conceals the physical tics and childlike repetitions. But the 27-year-old functions on a 5-year-old’s level, and her mom, Joan, says Jennifer’s behavior has deteriorated significantly since New Jersey officials compelled her to leave an out-of-state treatment facility.
“I was shocked. I didn’t think it would be this bad. She’s eating with her hands, she’s interrupting, she’s not listening to other people. These are things that she never did at Plowshare Farm,” Joan said.
Plowshare Farm is a residential center in New Hampshire for people with developmental disabilities. Jennifer moved there at age 19 and thrived in the structured environment, her mom says — worked in the kitchen, made friends, helped with farm animals.
“She was hiking and biking and visiting friends and social. They were well trained, so if there ever was any kind of a behavior problem, the directors lived there as well and they were there to answer any problems or counsel people on how to deal with her,” Joan said.
But New Jersey tax dollars paid the bills, and four years ago, the Department of Human Services ordered out-of-state clients to come back — under a program called Return Home New Jersey. Jennifer’s among 170 people transferred back to group homes in the Garden State from 2009 through 2015. Jersey’s got nothing comparable to Plowshare Farm, so Jennifer’s now living in a group home in Bridgewater and her mom says Jennifer rarely leaves her room and stares at pictures for hours.
“She was in her bedroom at 3:30 in the afternoon, she slept in her clothes and she hadn’t eaten all day. And they told me they weren’t allowed to force her to leave the bedroom,” Joan said.
When the Return Home New Jersey program ended, Joan Sullivan petitioned the Department of Human Services to move Jennifer back to Plowshare Farm citing a respected clinical consultant who confirmed Jennifer’s regression was “…significant and resulting in a condition no better than if she were on a ward in a state hospital…there should be outrage that we are spending three and four times the amount of money on Jennifer Sullivan’s services in state that are totally unacceptable and inappropriate for her …”
A co-sponsor of the law to end Return Home says it obligates the state.
“They would make sure that they would get the same services — equal if not better here in New Jersey — or would be able to go back to their out-of-state placement. And I implore the department to work with this family,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle.
But the Department of Human Services has refused Sullivan’s petition, saying her case doesn’t warrant it, noting, “There is no provision allowing for clients living in-state [at the time the bill was signed] to subsequently be transferred out of state.”
“And that is absolutely incorrect,” said attorney and autism advocate Johanna Burke.
Burke’s working with the Sullivan family and says the law does provide for clients to return when Jersey’s got nothing comparable. In fact, Burke represented Tyler Loftus — a severely autistic young man who ended up in jail after New Jersey forced him to return home from his residential placement center in Pennsylvania.
“It took us a year to get Tyler out of the state of New Jersey and back into his placement at the Woods Facility in Pennsylvania,” Burke said. “It can’t be a one-size-fits-all for the developmentally disabled population and that’s all New Jersey offers. They are not equipped to handle those with severe developmental disabilities.”
We asked Jennifer what she wishes for.
“I miss Plowshare Farm,” she said.
Burke and Joan Sullivan will meet with state officials and make their case again the first week of June. They’re determined to grant Jennifer’s wish to move back to Plowshare Farm.