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More group homes should be long-term goal for N.J., says DHS commissioner

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Jennifer Velez, commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, has been very clear: New Jersey's long-term goal is to relocate many of the nearly 2,000 citizens with developmental disabilities out of institutions and into group homes in the community.

"(Group homes) are going to be a growth area for New Jersey and it should be," Velez said during a visit to a group home in Farmingdale earlier this week.

Velez said individuals with developmental disabilities should be able to live in "homes in neighborhoods that look like homes in every other neighborhood."

DHS currently funds and oversees the new group homes as well as the state's seven developmental centers, two of which are slated to close this year.

Velez's vision is creating growth opportunities for both nonprofits such as Arc and for-profit agencies such as Benchmark Human Services, which runs the home Velez visited, to fill the need.

By mid-year, Benchmark said it will operate 13 group homes in New Jersey, serving 57 individuals with behavioral and medical needs who require a high level of round-the-clock care.

And while New Jersey is seeing increased interest by both nonprofit and for profit group home developers, Velez said both must meet the same stringent state licensing and quality regulations.

"We examine every agency, for profit or nonprofit, on its merits," she said. "Because they have to have the quality staff, the licensed and credentialed staff, and provide a quality home environment for people who have every right to be in the community. So I would welcome the business models that can meet our expectations."

According to DHS, there more than 280 providers working with the agency's Division of Developmental Disabilities to provide a variety of community services and supports. Of that number, 122 are new to the DDD service system.

Diana Kennedy, the state director for New Jersey for Benchmark, said two of the residents of the Farmingdale group home are 54-year-old twins, Pamela and Donna Barry, who have cerebral palsy.

She said residents of Benchmark group homes include people whose medical conditions require a feeding tube or oxygen or who have autism or other developmental diagnoses.

She said New Jersey provides funding to purchase and operate group homes, which she said are less costly to the state than institutional care.

According to Dawn Apgar, deputy commissioner of DHS, it costs the state about $160,000 per person per year for a group home resident, compared to about $300,000 in an institution. She said the state plans to move more than 200 residents out of developmental centers by the end of this fiscal year, June 30, and another 150 next year.

The state plans to close the North Jersey Developmental Center by June 30, and the Woodbridge Developmental Center by the end of this year.

Donna and Pamela Barry moved to the Farmingdale group home last November from Woodbridge. Their father, Carl Barry, said the family celebrated Thanksgiving in the new group home.

"We wanted them to experience community living and have a chance to get out of an institution," Barry said.

His daughters go to a day program run by the LADISON network that provides activities and stimulation.

"They can go to the boardwalk and see the ocean," he said.

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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