ISELIN, N.J. — Since 2018, Children’s Aid and Family Services has used video cameras to keep a close eye on the residents inside the 18 group homes it runs for people with developmental disabilities in north Jersey.

The Paramus-based nonprofit spent about $10,000 a home to install cameras in doorways, living rooms and kitchens and train employees what to do, or not do, when a resident is experiencing a behavioral crisis, said Melinda Iannarone Geraghty, the agency’s vice president for Disability Support Services. The video recordings are evidence when investigating a resident’s injury and an allegation of abuse.

“You also get to see these touching moments,” between residents and staff, she said, “when they are playing a board game and rubbing their arm and head in a positive and endearing way.”

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Steven Cook from the Arc of Mercer said putting cameras in all 19 group homes, as well as in their fleet of cars, has saved money and improved quality.

“If you are trying to understand what happened, cameras used appropriately are a tool to protect (the employee) and consumer and maintain the integrity of your program,” Cook said.

But for all the talk about cameras being an astute investment for some, the group home industry’s lobbyists and some disability activists have united against a bill that would require video surveillance systems in all group homes in New Jersey.

The idea emerged after the 2017 death of 33-year-old Billy Cray, whose body was found in his bedroom closet in his Somers Point group home. An autopsy said he died of natural causes, but his mother, Martha Cray said she has never received satisfactory answers about his supervision and care.

In 2020, Billy’s Law was introduced with the vocal backing of a core group of parents with distressing stories and photographs about their children’s unexplained injuries. An hours-long, emotional hearing on the bill that December also featured sharp opposition from disability advocates and group home operators who argued the law would diminish the right to privacy everyone should expect wherever they live.

“If surveillance becomes a common factor in their lives, privacy is in danger of no longer being considered the inherent human right of this minority population,” according to testimony from the Alliance for Betterment for Citizens with Disabilities.

The bill’s original sponsor, state Assemblywoman Joann Downey, D-Monmouth, lost reelection a year later. State Sen. Ed Durr, R-Gloucester, a freshman lawmaker from the minority party in the Statehouse, reintroduced the bill in March 2022. But Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee has not scheduled it for a hearing yet.

Vitale said he has told Durr he is waiting for him to meet with the opposing sides and fashion a compromise. The issues are too complex to hammer out at a marathon hearing.

“I’ll be more than happy to entertain the legislation when the amendments are written,” Vitale told NJ Advance Media. “No one wants a child to be abused in their home. The stories are heartbreaking.”

Durr said he and his staff have not had success in getting opponents to the negotiating table or even getting their calls returned. He said he will keep trying. He said he has asked Vitale to schedule a hearing to allow the negotiations to play out in public, as he has seen some bills handled this way.

“I have my theories on why it is being stalled,” Durr said. “There’s too much politics being played with people’s lives … We have the responsibility to protect people.”

Whatever is delaying the negotiations, Cray and other parents fighting for more transparency and accountability from group home operators say the longer this process takes, the more harm can come to people like their children who are unable to defend themselves.

“This bill was created out of my son’s memory,” said Cray. “They are stomping all over my son’s memory.”

The measure (S1897) calls for video cameras to be installed in living and dining areas in the group home, including doorways and staircases “upon the collective request of the residents and the residents’ authorized representatives.”

It would also allow guardians to install cameras in a resident’s bedroom, but if there is a roommate, that person must give consent. The state Department of Human Services must annually check to see if the cameras are working properly. Residents and their guardians may request to see the video footage, according to the bill.

Aileen Rivera of Wayne, the mother of a son with a disability who has worked alongside Cray to help pass Billy’s Law, said she and other parents have been calling Vitale’s office and using social media to press for action.

“The bill will help everybody,” Rivera said. “It will provide transparency. If the person fell, you can see why they fell. If someone inflicted in injury or if they injured himself, it takes the blame and the doubt away.”

The issue is so complicated that even the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, an advisory body made up of self-advocates and guardians, has declined to take a position on the bill.

Privacy is the core issue here, Mercedes Witowsky, the council’s executive director and the parent of 33-year-old daughter with disabilities who lives with her. But privacy needs vary based on the individual, she said.

“There were some people who are, for a lack of a better term, higher functioning who can articulate, ‘I don’t want a camera in my home.’ But if the guardian says I do, who will prevail? Who wants to be put in the middle of that?” she said.

“We met with families who did and didn’t want them, providers who wanted them and (those) not at all interested. At the end of all the meetings, we believed there wasn’t a position that could lead us to saying we support or oppose the bill,” Witowsky said.

Valerie Sellers, CEO of the New Jersey Association of Community Providers, Inc., which represents group operators, said the premise surrounding the bill — that group homes are inherently dangerous places — is not true.

“If a family has concerns with the care being provided to its loved one, then other agencies should be consulted as many do have cameras. A family is not restricted to one agency or home,” Sellers said.

“Abuse, neglect and exploitation does occur, however, it has been portrayed as being rampant within the IDD community,” Sellers wrote in an email, referring to the intellectual and developmental disability community. She said data about the number of substantiated reports of abuse and neglect investigated by the Department of Human Services’ Office of Program Integrity and Accountability, “will provide a realistic picture of what is occurring in relation to abuse, neglect and exploitation.”

But when NJ Advance Media requested the number of reported incidents and substantiated cases across all group homes licensed by the state, a Human Services spokesman said the state does not collect aggregate data.

The Office “performs biannual visits to group homes, supervised apartments and community care residences in accordance with New Jersey statutes to assess whether individuals are at risk of, or are being subjected to abuse, neglect or exploitation,” Human Services spokesman Tom Hester said.

These visits were part of the mandate under the Stephen Komninos’ Law, named for a 22-year-old unsupervised man who choked to death while under the supervision of a day program provider. Last year, state surveyors made 5,671 unannounced visits and investigated 61 reports of abuse, neglect or exploitation, Hester said. About half of those cases were substantiated, he said.

Information is available by request through the Open Public Records Act for each of the 124 group home and day program providers, which are listed on the state website.

The law also has weeded out dangerous front-line staff. The state added 203 to the Central Registry of Offenders Against Individuals with Developmental Disabilities, a 49% increase in the number of offenders on the registry since it was created in May 2011, Hester said.

But some families say their loved ones — especially those who cannot communicate — need more intervention.

Johanna Burke, a special needs attorney and the mother of a 19-year-old son who is nonverbal, said if cameras had been installed in Aidan’s group home in Sicklerville, she, group home management and state investigators would know what led up to a housemate assaulting her son on two recent occasions. Aidan is supposed to receive one-on-one supervision, she said.

“Why were no staff there to stop this from happening to my son?” Burke said. “I would have been able to see the reason why the other resident attacked my son. They are both nonverbal and neither of them can communicate the reason why anything happened.”

Surrounding states have not imposed a mandate but they have gone further than New Jersey on promoting the use of cameras.

The Pennsylvania Office of Developmental Programs has developed an “11-step method for evaluating whether camera use constitutes a privacy violation to ensure fairness and consistency in applying regulatory requirements,” according to the state website. “This method has been applied since June 2018 with great success.”

New York only allows cameras to be used when they are part of a medical or behavioral plan approved by the person’s treatment team, according to the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.

“Monitoring and/or recording technology may not be used solely for the purpose of protecting individuals from abuse or neglect or for general surveillance,” according to New York’s policy.

“Instead, other less-intrusive and non-institutional measures must be used,” such as “increasing levels of staff, levels of supervision and staff to resident ratios.”

Opponents to New Jersey’s bill say there is no evidence that cameras prevent abuse and neglect — a point raised in a position paper by the Massachusetts Coalition of Families and Advocates, Inc., a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “There seems to be some agreement that the cameras are not necessarily as effective in deterring abuse as in helping prosecutions after abuse has occurred,” the coalition’s statement said.

If the stalemate continues, there are strategies that families and policymakers may find helpful.

The bill must be amended to address who will pay the cost of the camera installation and upkeep, and that should be the state’s responsibility, said Richard Lecher, president and CEO of Sussex County Arc., also known as SCARC.

All 22 of SCARC’s group homes have common-area and outdoor cameras, but they were added “a little at a time” because of the expense. “Some of the other Arc chapters are considering cameras but they don’t have the money to do this.”

Durr said he would amend the bill to say the state would cover the costs associated with the cameras. “New Jersey is sitting on a boatload of money. I can’t think of a better use of our funds than to help the vulnerable.”

Three group home operators NJ Advance Media interviewed said they would not recommend cameras in bedrooms. Iannarone Geraghty from Children’s Aid and Family Services said bedroom cameras fail to respect the humanistic desires of each person and “how they choose to express them.”

Lecher said he has never had a family request a bedroom camera. The cameras in common areas “provide a sense of security for families and our administration,” Lecher added. “We have a multiple level of people who scrutinize every event and report every event to the guardian … We have nothing to hide.”

Witowsky from the state council would like to see the bill “pilot” or try out cameras on a limited scale in group homes that don’t have them now. The state should make a list of all providers that offer cameras so parents and guardians can choose them if this is a priority, she said.

More than anything, she wants people to start working together on solutions.

“I can understand the providers who are upset because they are doing everything to run quality programs. But when you hear the stories about when things go wrong, we have to listen,” Witowsky said.

© 2023 Advance Local Media LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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