Some Worry Moving Disabled from Centers Will Be Harmful

By Brenda Flanagan

Fifty-three-year-old Bob Fesel communicates with a computer — operates it with his leg. He sends emails.

“I feel great,” he said. “I like to go to parties.”

Cerebral palsy crippled his body, but Bob’s mind stays sharp. He explains why he chose to move out of the state-run Vineland Developmental Center — and move in to a garden apartment in Lawrenceville. Home health aides spend 22 hours a day, helping him eat through a stomach tube, take his meds and basically live a more normal life.

“I have more freedom. I have a dog. And I can dress up my place,” he said.

Bob applauds a state initiative called Return Home NJ, which seeks to relocate 464 developmentally disabled New Jerseyans from out-of-state residential centers — like Woods in Langhorne, Pa. — where clients receive intense medical and behavioral therapy and instead move them to group homes here in New Jersey, where their care costs less.

So far, New Jersey’s relocated 176 clients. Bob says he knows these families feel apprehensive.

“Look at me! I was in an institution, then I moved out. Then my life got better,” he said.

“All these people that are in institutions need to be in a community, need to be in a neighborhood,” said Tasha Jones.

She says she moved her disabled daughter Enjoli from Vineland Center to a group home, where she’s flourishing. She urges other parents to try it.

“I think they’re a little nervous, a little scared, about moving them somewhere else,” she said.

“We’re talking about apples and oranges, here,” said Peggy Salvaggio.

Peggy’s daughter Marissa lives at Woods. She’s been here 26 years. She’s non-verbal and medically fragile. Peggy says moving Marissa could kill her.

“I think it’s definitely, definitely a life and death situation to move her into an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar people,” Peggy said.

Marissa’s parents — and many other families with loved ones living in out-of-state care centers — want to put the state’s plans on hold. Today they came to Trenton to support a bill that would bar any more moves until officials at the Division of Developmental Disabilities study the issue more carefully. The bill passed easily in the Assembly.

Over in the Senate, a companion bill’s in committee awaiting action. Senate President Steve Sweeney says he would post the bill. So far, no comment from the governor’s office.