‘Stephen Komninos’ Law’ Will Put Measures in Place to Address these Issues in State-Licensed Facilities
After nearly four years, legislation pushed by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle was signed into law on Friday to better protect children and adults with development disabilities from potential abuse and neglect by caregivers.
The law, which is also sponsored by Assembly Democrats Gabriela Mosquera, Cleopatra Tucker, Angela McKnight, Raj Mukherji and Benjie Wimberly, was initially introduced by Vainieri Huttle in November of 2013. It was finally approved by both houses of the legislature in June, only to be conditionally vetoed by Gov. Christie in July. Both houses of the legislature have since concurred with his recommendations, setting the stage for the bill to be signed today.
The legislation (A-2503), known as “Stephen Komninos’ Law,” honors the memory of Stephen Komninos, an individual with developmental disabilities who died at the age of 22 while under the care of a private state-licensed facility for individuals with developmental disabilities. Stephen was a non-verbal young man who suffered through many substantiated incidents of abuse and neglect by caregivers. Tragically, the last incident resulted in his death.
“This day has been a long time in the making,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “I know we can never erase the pain that the Komninos family has endured, but my hope is that they can find a measure of comfort in the fact that a great deal of good has come out of one of their darkest moments. This new law, named in honor of their son, creates significant protections to help protect others like Stephen and ensure that incidents of abuse or neglect are addressed as swiftly as possible and those responsible are held accountable. I want to thank all of the advocates who fought alongside us to help create an environment that does not tolerate the abuse, neglect, or exploitation of individuals with developmental disabilities.”
The new law will help protect and ensure accountability and transparency for adults and children with developmental disabilities through site visits, allowing the person who is responsible for the welfare of the individual to attend or observe any investigation into cases of abuse, neglect or exploitation and by increasing the penalty for certain crimes.
“Sadly, the people most in need of our help and compassion often are considered easy targets for abuse and maltreatment,” said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester). “The provisions in this law will hopefully provide greater peace of mind for families by ensuring that facilities charged with helping their loved ones don’t actually end up causing the most damage.”
“Requiring site visits to facilities will help us better determine if individuals with developmental disabilities living in state-licensed facilities are at risk of, or are being subjected to, abuse, neglect, or exploitation by a caregiver,” said Tucker (D-Essex). “This oversight is crucial to putting an end to potential abuse.”
“Facilities will be required to report incidents of abuse, neglect or exploitation to the person who is responsible for the welfare of an individual with a developmental disability as soon as possible, which will ensure that loved ones are informed promptly,” said McKnight (D-Hudson).
“Not only do these changes substantially increase oversight at facilities, but they also bring families further into the fold, keeping them more informed and involved on the status of their loved one and creating greater peace of mind,” said Mukherji (D-Hudson).
“When parents take their children with developmental disabilities to a facility, they hope that the employees will treat their children with love and respect. Their absolute worst fear is that they one day will go through the pain that the Komninos family has experienced,” said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). “New Jersey has a responsibility to take a zero-tolerance stance when it comes to abuse and neglect by caregivers.”
Specifically, the law requires:
– Random, unannounced site visits to community-based residential programs to determine if individuals with developmental disabilities are at risk of, or are being subjected to, abuse, neglect, or exploitation by a caregiver;
– Each state developmental center to biannually schedule a meeting with the person who is responsible for the welfare of an individual with developmental disabilities.
– Community-based residential programs and day programs to make a notification of physical injuries no later than 2 hours after the occurrence of the injury; the changes also allow for notification to be given up to 8 hours after an incident in the event of extraordinary circumstances, which would have to explained in writing to DHS, the guardian, or a requesting family member within 14 days of the incident;
– DHS to make a site visit to developmental centers and community-based residential program following the report of major/moderate abuse, neglect, or exploitation;
– Facilities to notify a guardian of an incident within 60 minutes;
– DHS to review unsubstantiated incidents within 14 days (extended from seven days);
– The Office of Investigations to issue a written report of an incident within 30 days (extended from 14 days);
– DHS to post a copy of this bill on its website; and
– Allows the individual with developmental disabilities to prohibit notification of an incident to a guardian or family member.
The law also requires drug testing for all applicants seeking employment as a direct care staff member at a program, facility or living arrangement licensed or funded by DHS. Hired candidates will be subject to random drug testing during the course of employment. Random drug testing will be required at least once annually.