VINELAND — While a task force this spring was holding public hearings to decide which institution for disabled people the state should close, authorities were investigating a case of medical neglect at one facility that was so severe, a woman needed to have part of her arm amputated.
In April, medical staff at the Vineland Developmental Center wrapped a woman’s hand so tightly to protect a fractured pinky that an emergency room doctor eight days later described it as “mummified” and consumed with gangrene, according to state Health Department inspection records. The left hand of the woman — a ward of the state — was amputated just above the wrist May 11.
The state has since fired seven temporary nurses, suspended three permanent nurses and is moving to terminate seven other nursing staff connected to her care, state Human Services spokeswoman Nicole Brossoie told The Star-Ledger of Newark.
Because of this probe — and another that found that 11 residents in one cottage were “deeply scratched” and their bodies marked with “carvings” over nearly two years — Vineland was the only one of New Jersey’s seven developmental centers placed in “immediate jeopardy” earlier this year by federal officials, potentially threatening funding.
The investigations were among hundreds of pages of research documents the Task Force on the Closure of State Developmental Centers said it consulted, but panel members say they were not among the main factors used in making their decision.
In July, the panel voted to keep Vineland open and instead shutter Woodbridge Developmental Center in Middlesex County and North Jersey Developmental Center in Passaic County by 2017 — a decision that will uproot nearly 700 people and disrupt more than 2,600 state jobs.
The task force concluded it would be too hard for economically depressed Cumberland County to absorb the loss of jobs and meet the demand for housing and vocational programs that former Vineland residents would need. It reasoned that Woodbridge and North Jersey are in more financially stable communities with more housing and program options.
Task force chairman Craig Domalewski said the panel considered information about the Vineland investigations “generally relevant. But we were not asked to make a decision based on a licensing inspection.”
Although the vote was taken in public and preceded by seven public hearings and visits to the centers, parents and union workers tied to Woodbridge and North Jersey are stunned and angry. They are meeting with attorneys to challenge the decision.
“They’re expecting us to send our children down there?” Marylyn Carr, of Rahway, said upon learning of the investigations.
Carr, 77, said officials informed her they would eventually need to move her son, Eugene, who has lived at Woodbridge for nearly four decades. She could choose to send him to a group home or to Vineland — about 100 miles away — if she wanted to continue institutional care.
“This is heartbreaking,” she said. “They are used to the people who take care of them. You can’t do this to them. I hope all of the people in New Jersey can sleep at night knowing that they saved money for you at the expense of these innocent people.”
Gov. Chris Christie has made no secret of his plan to reduce New Jersey’s reliance on institutional care. The average annual cost for one person at a center is $270,000, and about 2,400 people live in them. The state is also being sued by disabled rights advocates to follow federal law and relocate more able-bodied disabled into community housing.
Christie’s budget last year called for closing Vineland, and his administration began transferring residents and workers. Then Vineland’s most vocal legislative supporter, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, intervened. He introduced a bill that the governor and Legislature supported creating the five-member task force to decide which centers would close.
Nancy Thaler, a task force member, said the law laid out five specific criteria to guide the decision: the local economic impact of losing a center, the ability of the community to provide or develop services for those leaving the centers, the number of residents who wanted to leave or didn’t oppose moving outside the region, the state’s ability to maintain operations, and projected repair and maintenance of each center.
“No one piece of information or experience was the defining factor. The process was as neutral as possible,” said Thaler, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services. “The members of the task force took this very seriously. We had a visceral sense that these decisions would deeply affect people’s lives.”
The task force considered unemployment data by county in 2011, confirming Cumberland County had the highest jobless rate, 13.3 percent — well above the state average of 9.3 percent. But Passaic County, where North Jersey is located, had a 10.9 percent unemployment rate, third highest among the seven counties being looked at. The task force voted North Jersey should be the first to close.
When, in 2007, the task force examined which center had the most people who could live in the community, it found only 20 percent of Woodbridge residents could make the transition, the third lowest. Vineland had the second highest, 36.5 percent. North Jersey had 27.1 percent.
“When you take all the information and lay it out developmental center by developmental center, there is no perfect case to keep one center open and close another. There is room for people to act completely in good faith and reach different conclusions,” said Domalewski. He said other data convinced him South Jersey’s financial outlook is much worse than the rest of the state.
“The economic effect would have been devastating,” Van Drew said. Cumberland is “the county with the highest unemployment rate. The children in this county have the highest poverty rate. Most of the folks who work there are of color and the majority are single providers for their families.”
The medical neglect and the physical abuse investigations at Vineland are “unacceptable in any developmental center, which is why constant monitoring is needed,” Van Drew said. He said such incidents happen at other developmental centers, noting a doctor at Hunterdon Developmental Center was suspended last month amid accusations he performed unauthorized bone tests on patients.
Tom York, a legal consultant to some families with relatives at Woodbridge and North Jersey who is likely to represent them in future legal action, said despite the trend to move away from institutions, federal law requires government to meet the needs of the individual. People “have the right to have treating professionals make judgments about how their needs are best met. That can’t be overridden by political decree.”
York said transferring from institutional care to community housing has its own set of problems. “They are more likely to be abused in the community, it is less likely to be reported, and mortality rates are higher in the community,” he said.
The task force concluded the four other facilities — Woodbine, New Lisbon, Hunterdon and Green Brook — should not close “due in part to the operational needs” and “the difficulty of replicating the services provided in a cost-effective way.”
An Associated Press Member Exchange report.