VINELAND — State Department of Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez defended the proposed closing of the Vineland Developmental Center on Tuesday, testifying before a hostile crowd at a public hearing on the issue.
Velez had to stop her testimony a few times as people in the crowd booed her, made catcalls and sometimes shouted “liar.”
The situation grew worse when Velez and her staff got up from the table where they were sitting as they testified to members of the state Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizen Committee and the Assembly Human Services Committee.
Many people in the room thought Velez was leaving the hearing and stood and started shouting loudly at her. One man standing only a few feet from Velez looked at her and called out, “You sold us out.”
Velez and her staff never left the room. They wound up sitting behind the committee members for much of the remainder of the hearing. The hearing, which was held in Vineland City Hall’s council chambers, drew an overflow crowd.
Gov. Chris Christie is proposing to close the developmental center — which houses more than 300 developmentally impaired women and employs about 1,400 workers — by June 2013. State officials said they opted to close the facility because the number of residents living at New Jersey’s developmental centers is declining as families opt for community-based options. They also said that closing the center will save the state millions of dollars.
Between the angry outbursts aimed at Velez were emotional pleas to keep the developmental center open. Those testifying said they have family members at the facility who couldn’t survive anywhere else.
Montvale, Bergen County, resident Lori Barton said her sister has lived in the center for 54 years.
“She has been comfortable and safe,” Barton said. “The center is a very special place. The staff treats all the (residents) like family. It’s about displacing a vulnerable person from her home … and forcing her to make the change. Having to adapt to a new home, new staff is very detrimental to her well being.”
Curtis Schneider, of Jackson, Ocean County, said his daughter moved into the center in March 2009 after several bad incidents at community group homes.
“They are so good there,” Schneider said as he spoke through tears. “This is the place for Marie. The staff is wonderful. They love her and they care for her. I implore you not to close this center.”
William Hemphill, of Paulsboro, Gloucester County, said his 50-year-old daughter, Barbara Judith, who can’t walk or talk, has lived in the center for 38 years.
“The staff has treated her wonderful,” Hemphill said. “I just don’t see why you people want to close this place. Vineland is safe. The people who work there are the best people in the world.”
Not everyone testified in favor of keeping the developmental center open.
ARC of New Jersey Executive Director Thomas Baffuto said his organization supports the closing.
“We strongly believe that we don’t need seven developmental centers anymore,” Baffuto said, adding that community-based housing provides resident with more freedom, family contact and personal choice.
Baffuto’s testimony drew a rebuke from state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic. Van Drew is not part of the Senate committee, but sat on the panel Tuesday with the permission of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland.
Van Drew told Baffuto his testimony was “inappropriate and unseemly” before a full study of the issue is complete. When he asked Baffuto if closing developmental centers meant more money for his organization, Baffuto grudgingly said it did.
Velez was the first person to testify during the hearing.
She said the families of nearly half the women at the Vineland Developmental Center want to move those residents into community-based homes.
“There is no coercion involved in community placement,” Velez said.
Velez said the decision to close the center is “not groundbreaking,” and that her department has experience in transitioning developmental residents into other community-based housing. The state will take all measures possible to make sure the women moved into community-based housing will be safe, Velez said.
Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, chairwoman of the Senate committee, asked Velez if there are residents who need to stay in the Vineland Developmental Center.
“There are people who choose to stay in the center,” Velez said. “Some of them will choose to go to another developmental center.”
But Van Drew told Velez that he believes moving some residents from the Vineland Developmental Center to other developmental centers or community-based residences may prove fatal.
Van Drew and Weinberg also said that the closing makes no sense because there already is a waiting list of 8,000 people for group homes.
Van Drew also said that the closing would be “very hurtful” to Cumberland County, which has the worst economy in the state. He said there’s no evidence that many of the 1,400 Vineland Developmental Center employees would find new employment.
“I believe at the end of the day, people are not going to be able to put bread on the table,” Van Drew said. “This is the wrong thing to do.”
Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, told Velez, “We’re talking about the care of residents who are in these facilities.”
“When you see the faces of the residents and the love and care that is given to them in this facility, it is beyond words,” Albano said. “I think that someone in the state … needs a reality check on what’s happening here. I believe this is the wrong thing to do.”
The hearing also prompted Weinberg to order investigations.
Officials with the Communication Workers of America, or CWA, told committee members that some center residents who could verbally oppose the closing were purposefully taken on a field trip Tuesday morning, when some committee members toured the facility.
CWA Local 1040 President Carolyn Wade also testified that there is “total fear” among some Vineland Developmental Center residents about being bused to other facilities. Wade alleged to the committee that one center resident was coerced into getting on a bus by being told that she was being taken somewhere to have her nails done.
Weinberg turned to Velez and asked her to investigate the allegations.
This isn’t the only event related to the closing of the Vineland Developmental Center that will take place this week.
Van Drew is organizing a rally to be held at the developmental center at 4 p.m. Friday. The rally will be held on Spring Road.
Fliers advertising the rally were distributed during Tuesday’s hearing.
Contact Thomas Barlas: