Vainieri Huttle, Diegnan ‘Tara’s Law’ Released from Assembly Human Services Committee

Measure would Improve Protections for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities in Community Care; Provide Method for Investigating Allegations of Abuse

(TRENTON) – Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Patrick J. Diegnan that would create more stringent oversight of community care facilities servicing the developmentally disabled community and provide a clear methodology for investigating potential instances of abuse was released Monday by an Assembly committee.

The measure (A-2573) is named “Tara’s Law,” in memory of 28-year-old Tara O’Leary, a developmentally disabled woman who had been residing in a licensed community care residence in the state. Over a 2.5 year period, she lost a dangerous amount of weight, failed to attend the majority of her day programs and was finally admitted to a local hospital, weighing only 48 pounds and suffering from dehydration, malnutrition and bedsores. When, despite efforts of the hospital staff, Tara’s condition did not improve, she was disconnected from life support and died.

While Tara was under community care, she underwent a medical examination, as required under current Department of Human Services (DHS) regulations. However, the physician did not take protective custody of her at that time, nor was Tara’s condition reported to DHS.

“It is beyond unconscionable that a developmentally disabled person under community care could literally waste away to nothing without anyone taking any action,” said Vanieri Huttle (D-Bergen), the Assembly Human Services Committee chair. “If we can spare even one family the kind of pain and suffering that Tara’s family went through, then this legislation will have been a success.”

“The tragedy of Tara’s death is that it was preventable,” said Diegnan (D-Middlesex). “When it comes to the developmentally disabled, clear chains of communication are a literal lifeline to survival. Systemic breakdowns in that chain simply cannot be allowed to occur again.”

The Human Services Committee amended the bill to be identical to its Senate counterpart.

The bill defines a community care residence as “private homes or apartments in which an adult or family is licensed by, and contracts with, the DHS to provide up to four individuals with developmental disabilities with care or training, or both.”

Under the bill, individuals who are licensed to operate community care residences (licensees) would be subject to annual inspections by DHS. If a licensee does not pass the inspection, they would be required to submit a plan of correction to address the shortcomings. A subsequent DHS inspection would be required within 30 days of DHS’s receipt of the plan of correction from the licensee. If during the subsequent inspection, DHS determines that the plan was not satisfactorily implemented, DHS would have the option to remove and relocate the individuals under the licensee’s care, subject to a determination of whether the conditions are a threat to the individual’s health and safety. DHS also would be authorized to take negative licensing action and impose fines of up to $350 a day against the licensee for repeated failures to satisfactorily implement a plan of correction.

In addition, licensees would be required to annually attend continuing education programs approved by DHS. They also would be required to take an annual two-week leave from their duties, during which time another licensed individual would take over the caregiving responsibilities. Finally, as a condition of maintaining a license, licensees would be required to submit to a physician’s examination, every two years, to determine whether they are physically and mentally capable of fulfilling their duties as a licensee.

The bill would require DHS supervisors to visit all individuals residing in a community care residence every two years, with half the visits occurring in the first year and the other half in the second, to determine the continued safety and well being of all individuals under community care. A supervisor who has reasonable cause to believe that an individual with a developmental disability in a community care setting has been subjected to abuse, neglect or exploitation by the caregiver is to report their finding immediately to DHS.

Failure to do so would be considered a crime of the third degree, punishable by up to 18 months in prison and $10,000 in fines. DHS would be authorized to levy additional fines of $350 for each day the case was not reported, with the funds going to provide food and care for the individuals. A DHS employee who fails to report abuse/neglect findings immediately would be temporarily transferred to duties that do not involve contact with individuals with developmental disabilities; and would be terminated from employment with DHS upon conviction.

Finally, the bill authorizes a physician who is examining or treating a developmentally disabled individual living in a community care center to take the individual into their protective custody if the disabled individual has suffered a serious physical injury or is exposed to conditions that constitute a “life threatening emergency” under New Jersey law. After taking a developmentally disabled individual into their custody, the physician would be required to contact DHS via its emergency telephone service.

The bill now heads to the Assembly Speaker, who decides if and when to post it for a floor vote.