2013-06-12 / Front Page

Advocates sue in fight to keep developmental center open

By JESSICA D’AMICO
Staff Writer

Family members and guardians of residents at two developmental centers slated for closure announced June 5 that they don’t plan to take the shuttering of the facilities lying down.

The advocates for residents of the Woodbridge Developmental Center (WDC), Rahway Avenue, and the North Jersey Developmental Center (NJDC), Totowa, filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Newark that morning against the state of New Jersey on behalf of the residents. They asserted that moving the residents from their current homes is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, Medicaid statutes and regulations, and their basic civil rights.

“We’re really fighting for their life-sustaining supports,” said Joanne St. Amand, president of the WDC Parents Association. “We feel that the rights of the individuals at the centers need to be enforced and protected.” The advocates for the nearly 700 residents at the two centers and their attorney, Tom York of York Legal Group, Harrisburg, Pa., spoke on the steps of the federal courthouse after filing their suit.

“The state is interfering with professional medical judgment,” said Sam Friedman, a representative of the NJDC Parents Association. “Our family members, who for years have been deemed by their physicians and care teams to be inappropriate for community placement, are suddenly receiving bureaucratic form letters saying they are fit to move.”

The lawsuit alleges that the state’s agenda is interfering with clinicians’ decisions regarding the residents’ future care.

“These treating professionals are likely intimidated and fearful of retaliation, including the possible loss of their jobs,” the lawsuit states. The lawsuit also claims that the state has improperly and dangerously allowed the care and services at the developmental centers to deteriorate to a level that threatens the welfare of all residents.

In particular, the state has encouraged or frightened high-quality staff and treating professionals into leaving their positions, and their replacements are inadequate in number and in quality, the plaintiffs state.

Claims listed in the lawsuit detail instances in which residents’ abilities are mischaracterized in reports and other documents to make it appear that they would be able to perform functions for themselves in community settings.

St. Amand’s sister Rosemary, 58, has been living at the WDC for 20 years.

“She’s classified as profoundly intellectually disabled,” St. Amand said. “Cognitively, she’s like a 3-month-old.”

Like many other residents at the facilities, Rosemary can do nothing for herself. She must be changed, is unable to roll over on her own and has to be fed with puréed food.

In addition, she and many others of the residents have dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, which complicates feeding. Some residents require feeding tubes, St. Amand said.

Like other residents, whose average age is 50, Rosemary is beginning to contend with the effects of aging, along with scoliosis, St. Amand said.

“Just about all of them suffer from seizure disorders,” she said.

Despite a state Senate bill that would rescind the closing of the WDC and create a new task force to study the issue, state officials are moving forward with plans to close the two centers. According to St. Amand, state officials are engaging in tactics to rush the moving of the residents to group homes, which she said are grossly inadequate in their ability to offer the level of care given at the developmental centers.

St. Amand and other advocates said they have reached out in vain to Gov. Chris Christie in an effort to get him to visit one of the two centers and gain a better understanding of the residents’ needs.

“I can’t imagine life for these individuals without a center,” St. Amand said. “It will definitely shorten their life spans. I have no doubt about that.”

Family members of the residents have the option of moving their loved ones to one of the state’s five other developmental centers. However, the Green Brook Regional Center in Somerset County and the Hunterdon Developmental Center in Hunterdon County are both full, and the other three options — Vineland Developmental Center in Cumberland County, Woodbine Developmental Center in Cape May County and the New Lisbon Developmental Center in Burlington County — are located in the southern part of the state. Such a far move for the residents would make it difficult for family members to visit, especially considering that many of their parents are of advanced ages, St. Amand said.

“It’s just sad,” she said. “It’s sort of a planned demise.”

For more information or to join the cause, visit www.saveourddcenters.org.

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