Advocates for Disabled Say Closing Disability Centers May Result in Deaths

Brenda Flanagan

Cindy Bartman’s brother, Cliff, is 51 — but he thinks like a three-year-old, she says — mostly communicates with hand signals. Born with Down Syndrome — Cliff lives here at the Hunterdon Developmental Center.

“It wasn’t his choice to be born the way he was born. It wasn’t his choice. And he can’t pull himself up by his bootstraps,” said Bartman.

Bartman says, Cliff can choke if his food isn’t ground up — he needs close supervision while he eats. That’s why she felt horrified to hear about two profoundly disabled patients, who died after being moved from a state-run developmental center in Totowa, into separate private group homes.

“I cried. What else could I do? I mean that could’ve been Clifford,” said Bartman.

“The two people that we can confirm, that have died, they choked to death,” said Geoff Dubrowsky.

Dubrowsky’s a member of New Jersey’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.  He believes the Christie Administration’s moving too fast, on its plan to close two of New Jersey’s seven developmental centers–Woodbridge and North Jersey in Totowa, and spend the money saved on opening more group homes in the community. The two choking victims had been moved to a Benchmark home in Branchburg, and a home operated by Cerebral Palsy of New Jersey, in Livingston.

“They choked to death, because the people that were given their care did not realize how extreme their eating problems were. They were left unsupervised,” said Dubrowsky.

Advocates and family members of the profoundly disabled say these recent deaths only prove their argument, that closing centers like these down will result in deaths.

“There’s no way you move 1,000 people in six months who have severe cognitive disabilities and expect there not to be deaths,” said Dubrowsky.

In a statement, Benchmark said it’s “Deeply saddened by this tragedy. Our first priority in all instances is the health, safety and respect of individuals we serve.” Cerebral Palsy of North Jersey said, “The staff members on duty followed all appropriate procedures” and criticized “Those who would exploit the accidental death of a severely disabled individual to advance personal and political agendas.” The governor has stated he won’t reconsider the issue.

“We held hearings and these are the recommendations that came out . And I have no interest in reinventing the wheel,” said Christie.

New Jersey’s Division for the Developmentally Disabled said group homes — like this one in Robbinsville — hire trained aides and must pass rigorous inspections and that, “Many family members who originally thought their loved one could not live successfully in a community home, have shared with us that their loved one has flourished in ways that they could not have imagined.”

“He can’t be put behind a white picket fence, and everything is going to be okay for him.  That’s not going to happen,” said Bartman.

She says, she’ll fight to keep Cliff here at Hunterdon.