[OPINION] Community Group Homes Offer Superior Service Compared To Developmental Centers

by Sidney Blanchard, executive director of Community Access Unlimited

Yesterday, The Star-Ledger ran an article, “Center Probed in Death of Woman – Family blames move to shutter facility.” This article was heartbreaking to read, for most of humanity, but especially so for myself.

As the Executive Director of Community Access Unlimited (CAU), a social services agency with over 34 years of experience supporting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in group home and community living setting, this woman’s passing struck too close to home. CAU most recently was named as one of the few statewide providers of support coordination (with the exception of our home-town of Union County) and provides individuals living at home with resources to local support services.

We noticed the quote, “Doran’s death fuels a long-running debate in New Jersey over whether large state residential facilities are needed. Opponents say they warehouse people, which makes them more vulnerable to harm. But families of people who have lived for decades at Woodridge and the North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa argue their loved ones need closer supervision and specialized care that group homes do not provide.”

This was not the first time neglect and abuse was substantiated at this site. It saddens me to hear of Maureen Doran’s death this weekend. Individuals with developmental disabilities have been restricted to living in developmental centers for much too long. It is critical to understand that Governor Christie’s decision to close the developmental centers in New Jersey in no way have influenced the growth of chaos within Woodbridge Developmental Center and the neglect that lead to Ms. Doran’s unfortunate death. This is simply a case of history repeating itself.

In response to the above quote…. The closing of Woodbridge Developmental center and the six other centers in New Jersey are a positive step in the right direction for New Jersey. There are currently 13 states in the US who are institution-free and have embraced the individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities within their state into their community.

Advantages to community living stem from ensuring a safe and protective environment for all individuals. At Community Access Unlimited, this means extensively trained staff that protects and provides for our members health and wellbeing at all hours of the day and night, at whatever level they need according to their individual plan. This means retaining a staff of licensed behaviorists who create extensively documented and person-centered behavioral plans and work with our members towards independent living goals.

Community living at Community Access Unlimited means that employees who exhibit any instance of abuse or neglect toward out members are fired and reported immediately. Accidents can be prevented and personal wellness cherished if an organization is committed to the individuals that they serve. That is the CAU Advantage.

We must all come together to ensure that history will not repeat itself. New Jersey needs to move forward – Individuals with developmental disabilities deserve not only to be loved or cared for but to be physically safe in their environment.

A Bit of Background:

In November 2004, the US Department of Justice, Civil Rights division conducted an investigation of conditions and practices at Woodbridge which revealed that “the center failed to protect residents from harm, provide adequate behavioral services, freedom from restraint and habilitation and provide adequate medical care.”

They also found that “residents are not placed in the most integrated setting appropriate to meet their individualized needs.” In just over one year, the resident of Woodbridge Developmental center “suffered frequent injuries – 1597 incidents in 12 months (April 2002-May 2003) – 433 accidents, 533 self-inflicted injuries, 135 peer-inflicted injuries, 48 incidents of neglect, and 53 incidents of undetermined origin.”

The report continues to bring to light numerous incidents within their year of investigation that speak to cases of severe physical and emotional harm – including one particularly upsetting story of a gentleman who passed away after 37 years at Woodbridge due to choking on bread. The event was witnessed by his ‘supervising’ staff and could have easily been prevented if he was properly looked after.

The report also states that while the center has a extensive central reporting incident management system, the staff at the center fail to actually report anything to the management system, resulting in an increased amount of incidents that could have been prevented by staff education of documented past incidents.

Findings such as these were also reported at the New Lisbon Developmental Center. The report describes the facility’s incident reports to ‘reveal a high number of incidents which resulted in an injury to a resident’ and stated that in 10 months (June 2001-April 2002) there were approximately 4,400 recorded incidents at New Lisbon. From January 2001-May 2002, there were 500 incidents recorded as moderate or major injuries. The report describes the New Lisbon property as “deteriorating, and New Lisbon is less safe now than it has been in the past.”

What is particularly interesting is the commitment made by the State of New Jersey to mend the New Lisbon Developmental Center is to expire 4 years after the investigation was completed. There should be a commitment for continuous safety of the loved ones that reside in all developmental centers in New Jersey.

In 2012, a woman at the Vineland Developmental Center was forced to have her arm amputated because a nursing staff wrapped her arm too tightly after a pinky fracture and was diagnosed with gangrene on the infected arm. It took eight days for someone to notice and bring this woman into an emergency room. This caused an investigation that resulted in finding of 11 residents in one cottage who were ‘deeply scratched’ and their bodies marked with ‘carvings’ that were two years old. This is unacceptable.

As Developmental Centers are closed throughout the state, it is important to let the public know that community group homes do provide superior service, treatments and safety to their residents and their families.

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