As the 216th New Jersey State Legislature convenes this month, unfinished business that was not completed in 2013 will be addressed. Among the issues that will be entertained by the members of the Senate and Assembly will be the reported cases of abuse and neglect of people with developmental disabilities in public and private residential centers.
Two specific pieces of legislation that address the issue were introduced during the 215th Legislature, which expired in December. When the new Legislature (the 216th) convenes, legislative initiatives that did not survive to final passage must be introduced once again.
Two specific bills, inspired by tragic deaths among the developmentally disabled residential population, were introduced, by the 215th Legislature, which expired before they could be passed and signed by the Governor.
The first bill, A4021, entitled. “The Protection for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities in Institutional and Community Settings Act”, was introduced on April 25, 2013. The bill was sponsored by Assembly members Gary Schaer (D., Bergen/Passaic), Valerie Vanieri Huttle (D., Bergen)., Cleopatra Tucker (D., Essex), and Marlene Caride (D., Bergen/Passaic).
According to a statement accompanying the bill:
“This bill is designed to provide protections for individuals with developmental disabilities residing in community residences for the developmentally disabled, developmental centers, private licensed facilities, and nursing homes. Community residences for the developmentally disabled are defined in the bill as including, but not limited to, group homes and supervised apartments. The bill also includes protections for individuals with developmental disabilities who attend day programs in the community”.
Several deaths served as the catalyst for A4021. The first was the much publicized death of Tara O’Leary, a young woman who was neglected to the point where she weighed not more than 50 pounds when she died. Her death was addressed in the bill called “Tara’s Law”. However, that bill limited protections to the residents of foster care, leaving the residents of developmental centers, group homes, nursing homes and supervised apartments unprotected.
In addition, the more recent death of Maureen Doran, a 68-year-old developmentally disabled woman who resided at the Woodbridge Developmental Center, has elicited responses from the public at large. In response to Doran’s death, Assemblyman Schaer stated that:
“It is vitally important that authorities complete a thorough investigation and autopsy in order to ascertain the direct cause of her death. Presently, signs point to Ms. Doran being a victim of abuse. This cannot be tolerated, and we must do everything we possibly can to prevent tragedies like this one from ever happing again.”
Assemblywoman Vanieri-Huttle has stated that, "Tragic incidents have occurred at developmental centers, group homes, and other residences. Regardless of where it happens, we must make sure that we are doing all we can to prevent abuse and neglect of our most vulnerable”.
The second bill, S3047, otherwise known as the “Stephen Komninos Law” and was first entertained by the State legislature in 2008, was introduced in the Senate by Jennifer Beck on November 14, 2013, and referred to the Committee on Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens. A Legislative statement declares that the bill, “Provides protections for individuals with developmental disabilities through accountability and transparency.”
S3047 was inspired by the death of Stephen Komninos, who died while choking on a candy wrapper in front of his caregiver who was distracted elsewhere. Incidents of abuse and neglect of Komninos were recorded over a five year period, during which a caregiver was reprimanded for assaulting Stephen. At least seven incidents of abuse of Komninos were reported.
As Senator Beck has stated, “As a society we are judged by how we treat those who are most vulnerable, and it is unacceptable to neglect and abuse individuals who cannot protect themselves”.
When the new Legislature convenes, the bill(s) must be introduced once again, with the legislators and their staff members “starting from scratch”. New bill numbers will be assigned and the proposed legislative initiatives will be assigned to committees, once more. As we wait, meanwhile, new cases of abuse and neglect will occur, resulting in additional physical and psychological injuries and deaths.
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