NJ disability watchdog says state fails to address abuse in group homes

New Jersey still can’t provide safe care for people with disabilities in group homes, says a report by a state watchdog that says abuse is reported “on a regular basis.”

“There is no question that abuse and neglect is occurring in some of our congregate settings,” Paul Aronsohn, the state ombudsman for the disabled community, said in the 30-page report released earlier. early this month. “I can’t tell you how widespread it is or why it happens, but families regularly share their images and horrific stories with us.”

Aronsohn cited a litany of complaints from residents of the state’s 2,037 group care programs and their families, including verbal and physical abuse, withholding of food, drug mix-ups and unsanitary conditions.

He credited the state Department of Social Services to take certain steps to address abuse, such as implementing the Stephen Komninos Law in 2018, requiring the state to conduct unannounced on-site visits to group homes and perform drug testing on staff, as well as notify parents or guardians when incidents occur.

Komninos, 22, suffocated to death in 2007 after being left unattended by staff at the South Jersey home where he lived.

Department of Social Services spokesman Tom Hester said the department was reviewing Aronsohn’s report and taking his concerns seriously, but he also defended state oversight of group homes.

As part of implementing the Komninos Act, the department conducted 46,000 in-person visits with group home residents, resulting in 829 reports “covering a wide range of issues” being reported. for follow-up or investigation, Hester said. As a result, 177 people were added to a registry of offenders against people with developmental disabilities.

Governor Phil Murphy’s administration “has taken significant steps to address” the issue, according to the ombudsman’s report. But there is still much to do, wrote Aronsohn.

Even after “the disturbing revelations” that emerged from a 2019 investigation into two Bellwether Behavioral Health group homes in West Milford, “no new programs or processes have been put in place to ensure that other provider agencies do not not engage in the same egregious practices,” he added.

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Two residents of separate Bellwether homes at West Milford is dead of choking on food in May 2017. The state close the for-profit provider of residential and day programs after an independent investigator found its homes were filthy, smelled of urine and had rotten food in the fridge. A home was found to have mixed residents’ medications.

At the time, a former staff member told NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network that workers at the Bellwether group home wrapped residents in “wraparound mats” and sat on them as a form of restraint. Other times, residents were placed in restraints fixed to the floor with carabiners.

Aronsohn suggests the administration should lead discussions about abuse and neglect with families, advocates, providers and lawmakers.

“We should have a zero tolerance policy with teeth. No excuses. No second chances,” he said. “We should make it easier for individuals and families to report abuse and neglect, perhaps through a central phone number or web portal for anyone in New Jersey, regardless of age, location, etc. .”

Personnel crisis

Aronsohn, a former mayor of Ridgewood, said the state needs to “dramatically change” the way it staffs homes, with better training and more money for those who help residents with daily life.

The disability community has long called for higher wages for those who help with daily needs, including bathing, dressing and 24-hour feeding.

The state has approved three rate increases for aides since 2019, with another scheduled for January 2023. The total four will add an additional $4.75 an hour for each worker, bringing the median wage to $17.86. $ per hour, depending on the state.

Aronsohn’s report noted that the salary is “about the same rate paid to a child employed by a retail store”, adding that “working a full-time 40-hour week, that salary is only between $27,000 and $33,000 per year – before taxes are deducted.”

He cited the mismatch between the low salaries they receive and the work they do to support people with “significant medical, physical and/or behavioral needs”.

Aronsohn offers two “free, easy-to-implement recommendations” for all the issues listed in his report. First, he said, “people in positions of authority should personally spend time with people with disabilities and their families.”

Case managers, advisory boards and outsourced intermediaries have cut decision makers off from the people they serve. In addition, authorities should hire and appoint people with disabilities and their families, who currently do not have a seat at the table.

“They are adults. They have a right to take action in their lives,” said Catherine Chin, executive director of the Alliance for the Enhancement of Disabled Citizens, a trade group representing group homes.

Chin, who has yet to read the report, said, “This is a fight for civil rights. We are not there yet, but we will get there.”

Gene Myers covers disability and mental health for NorthJersey.com and the USA Today Network. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @myersgene

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