The Hunterdon Developmental Center Scandal and the Denial of Civil, Human and Due Process Rights


Apparently the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the Unites States do not apply to a segment of our population in New Jersey. The Eight Amendment clearly protects us from Cruel and Unusual Punishment, and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees our right to Due Process. Interestingly, the Fourteenth Amendment was born out of the Dred Scott controversy, and his right to be free from slavery, and the infringement of the independent decision making process that accompanies citizenship.

The United States ruled in O'Connor v. Donaldson {422 U.S. 563 (1975)} that a patient could not be involuntarily subjected to medical treatment, including hospitalization. The case applied to psychiatric patients, but the ruling was eventually extended to all patients, including those with developmental disabilities. As a result of O’Connor v. Donaldson, the right of refusal was later expanded to the administration of medication, as well. Rennie v. Klein {462 F. Supp. 1131 (D.N.J. 1978)} is a New Jersey case that recognized the right of all residential patients to refuse such medication.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in Youngberg v. Romeo {457 U.S. 307(1982)}, that people with mental retardation who are committed to residential institutions have a “right to reasonably safe confinement conditions, no unreasonable body restraints and the habilitation they reasonably require”.

Unfortunately, the basic civil, human and due process rights that the public at large enjoys is often denied to people with developmental disabilities.

The issue of abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with developmental disabilities in residential care has received an inordinate amount of attention by the media in recent months. Statistics on the enormity of the problem vary, with conflicting numbers complicating the problem. One estimate is that over the last five years, there were thirty
five thousand cases of abuse and one-thousand deaths.

Both houses of the State Legislature have held hearings on the subject, pursuant to passing “Tara’s Law”, a bill that would provide protections for such individuals in community care residences (group homes). As this writer has pointed out, the bill excluded developmentally disabled residents in the larger developmental centers, group
homes, nursing, homes, supervised apartments, and day training centers. A separate bill was suggested by members of the State Legislature, with the hope that new cases of abuse would not appear as the legislative process unfolded.

Now, it has been reported by news sources that a doctor and nurse at the Hunterdon developmental center have illegally forced the residents to be guinea pigs in dangerous experiments, without notifying or receiving permission from their families. Furthermore, the Hunterdon Developmental center requires researchers to submit a request to
conduct such research. No such request was submitted, nor was permission given by the developmental center to conduct a study.

The disabled residents received large doses of Vitamin D and Calcium, which medical practitioners indicate is medically dangerous and can cause serious harm. In addition, it has been reported that witnesses to the illegal experiments have suggested to reporters that they are in fear of retaliation by the developmental center for revealing the truth.

One of the reported medical reactions to mega-doses of Vitamin D and Calcium is kidney and tissue damage. Furthermore, the residents were subjected to sedation during the experiments, once again without the permission of the developmental center or the families.

Recently, Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D, Bergen/Passaic) introduced a bill that would extend protections to developmentally disabled individuals in all types of residential and day training settings. Schaer, who also chairs the Assembly Insurance Committee, has a history of fighting for the rights of children and adults with disabilities. Currently, he is planning hearings on the failure of many New Jersey Insurance carriers to provide
policies for people with special needs.

State Senator Joe Vitale (D, Middlesex) who chairs the Committee on Heath, Human Services and Senior citizens, and Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D, Bergen), who chairs the Human Services Committee, have expressed concern over the plight of the residents and the fact that the doctor and nurse in question are on paid leave and have not been charged with a crime. Vitale and Huttle chaired the Committees that held hearings on Tara’s Law and voted to support it.

This current scandal at the Hunterdon Developmental Center raises further questions about the lack of oversight regarding the protection of people with developmental disabilities in residential care. Quite often, these individuals are unable to protest, resist, or report abuse, neglect and exploitation. Their life patterns were often interrupted as they
were sedated in buildings that were separate from the ones they resided in. They did not know why they were being sedated or why they were receiving drugs experimentally.

Unfortunately, the decisions in O’Connor v. Donaldson, Rennie v. Klein, and Youngblood v. Romeo, are not enforced to protect the rights of our vulnerable citizens who do not have the communication skills to protest, resist or report abuse, neglect and exploitation. Yet, when reviewing the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the aforementioned judicial decisions, there is no mention that any group, including those that include people with developmental disabilities, are exempt from the rights and protections that the rest of us enjoy.

 The Guest Column is our readers' opportunity to write about a given issue or topic in an in-depth and educational manner.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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