EDISON, N.J. — William Cray was found dead on the floor of his bedroom closet in a group home in Somers Point three years ago.

His mother said she’ll never know what happened to her son, a 33-year-old man with developmental disabilities. The autopsy said he died of natural causes. The operators of the state-licensed group home, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, didn’t say much, although she had been at odds with them in recent months over Billy’s unexplained bruises and other injuries.

Martha Cray asked a New Jersey Assembly panel last week to spare other families this fear and uncertainty by supporting legislation that would require the installation of security cameras if residents or their guardians give consent. She noted her son had suffered abuse in other licensed facilities, and when she complained and demanded an investigation, the claims were always “unsubstantiated.”

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“What exactly is the purpose of having a Department of Health and (a Department of) Human Services if they don’t oversee these facilities and hold them accountable?” she said.

Following an emotional three-hour hearing, the Assembly Human Services Committee agreed and voted 6-0 to pass the bill (A4013).

The bill requires the group home to retain the video recordings for 90 days, and the state Department of Human Services to list the names of group homes that have cameras on the state website. The bill, which was amended before the vote, makes clear the cameras would be installed in common areas — including backyards and doorways — and only if all of the residents agree they want them.

“The loss of a child, is best described as a state of purgatory and hell wrapped up in one,” Cray said as she wept. “The families who are testifying before this committee today that are feeling the stress of sleepless nights, is a fraction of the pain and stress they will have, should they lose their loved.”

Priscilla Quesada of East Windsor, the mother of a 21-year-old nonverbal son with autism who lives in a group home, said she believes cameras would help keep her son safe. She showed photographs of bruises around her son’s neck and rug burn on his face, among other injuries.

“No one knew or could give me an explanation on how these incidents occurred,” said Quesada, who described the guilt she feels as a “bad mother” for leaving her son in group care.

Representatives from the group home industry asked the committee to vote no and consider how cameras in common areas like living rooms would violate the residents’ privacy.

Cathy Chin, executive director for the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, shared with the committee a research paper that found cameras in homes of people with intellectual disabilities raises the level of distrust from employees and give families a false sense of security.

Brent A. Hayward from the Office of Health and Human Services of Victoria, Australia, after reviewing 43 research papers on the subject, concluded: “it was disliked by people with disabilities and was regarded with suspicion by staff. Functionality was limited and the ethical challenges associated with its deployment are considerable.”

At a time when budgets are stretched to acquire personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, “cameras are a waste of resources,” Chin said.

Evelyn Ramundo, president of the Statewide Self-Advocacy Network, an organization comprised of people with disabilities, said she surveyed her members and the “vast majority” opposed the idea of living under surveillance.

The bill “does not say who will be able to review the recordings,” Ramundo said. “Can you imagine being watched in your own bedroom or living room? The thought frightened me.”

“Cameras do not stop abuse or neglect,” she added. “Cameras cannot stop it when someone is choking.”

Assembly Human Services Chairwoman Joann Downey, D-Monmouth, who is also the prime sponsor of the bill, stressed that everyone living in the group home must consent to the use of cameras in the common areas. If anyone says no, they would not be installed. Residents could request them for their bedroom — paid for by the resident’s family — but if it is a shared space, there needs to be consent by everyone sharing the room.

Downey said she was “really kind of upset” because it appeared the self-advocates “were fed information” that wasn’t true.

“We’ve gone through every particular thing to make sure this balances privacy and protecting people,” Downey said. “If they don’t want it, they don’t have to have it.”

Downey added that some group homes use cameras with great success because they protect both residents and staff, who otherwise may be falsely accused of wrongdoing.

Jessica Gustafson, a former Devereux employee who said she was warned by management that Billy Cray had a habit of falsely accusing staff of abuse, said she came to know him well and witnessed his mistreatment.

There is no reason employees should object to cameras unless they have something to hide, Gustafson told the committee.

“Cameras should be installed in every hospital, nursing and group home in America,” Gustafson said. “While abuse may never go away completely, cameras would definitely decrease the amount of abuse. The men and women that have to live in a group home have the right to feel safe.”

© 2020 NJ Advance Media Group
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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