By Brenda Flanagan
Families of developmentally disabled adults protested outside and watched inside, as members of the Legislative Oversight Committee grilled Christie administration officials about Return Home NJ. The controversial plan’s brought 170 developmentally disabled adults back from residential programs out of state — where some lived for years — to less expensive group homes in New Jersey. Twenty-six-year-old Alexa Kelly returned a year ago over her mom’s objections.
“It’s been a disastrous placement,” Alexa’s mother Laura Kelly said. “Pretty much everything has happened to her. She’s been hospitalized twice for aspiration pneumonia from choking. You know often left not adequately supervised. Lots of medication errors.”
“Wouldn’t we be better off making this optional for families?” asked Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Sweeney spoke, he said, from the heart. His daughter Lauren was born with Down syndrome.
Families of the remaining 370 developmentally disabled facing a return to New Jersey have appealed to Sweeney and other lawmakers to freeze the program.
“It seems as if we’re not factoring in the heartache and the anguish that is being inflicted on families who really feel they finally have their loved one in the right place,” said Sen. Bob Gordon.
“We’re not gonna move them back until there is an appropriate service that a family feels comfortable with and that can meet their needs. And for some that’s quick and for others it’s a very long, stressful, difficult process,” said Department of Human Services Assistant Commissioner Dawn Apgar.
Apgar noted the state picked up $22.8 million in federal matching funds for the 170 who returned already but had no estimate of further savings. She said no one’s forced to return. Sweeney disagreed.
“I know you’re not driving out of state to pick someone up. You’re just notifying them we’re not paying for it any more. And that is problematic. If someone has no financial means, what do they do? They are forced back. So it’s not what you presented to me, up to this point,” Sweeney said.
Families like the Adams — whose son is at a center in Pennsylvania — said they have appealed when the division yanked funding.
“It was reinstated but after again many sleepless nights and tears and attorneys and dollars,” said Marcia Adams.
The families will continue to protest and the Legislative Oversight Committee will continue to monitor the situation, but it can’t block state officials from transitioning the developmentally disabled. The legislature already passed a moratorium on Return Home NJ. The governor vetoed it.