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Bills To Create Best Practices, Visitations At Group Homes During Emergencies Advances

A pair of bills aimed at supporting community-based facilities for individuals with developmental disabilities during public health emergencies recently advanced in Trenton.

The first measure, A-4138, would require the state to create and oversee the implementation of emergency response plans for group homes during a crisis, while the second bill, A-4239, calls for the development of policies and guidance for in-person visitation during the COVID-19 and future emergencies.

While New Jersey’s coronavirus cases have been trending downward, state officials are anticipating a resurgence this fall or winter, which is why state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) took action to help get policies in place now.

Being Prepared

“No one was fully prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, including our developmental centers,” Vainieri Huttle said in a statement. “It’s critical that we make sure providers have a roadmap of best practices and standards to follow going forward so that we may better protect our most vulnerable.”

Under A-4138, the state Department of Human Services, in coordination with the Department of Health and New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, would be required to create plans that include:

  • Guidelines and best practices for operations, activities and procedures
  • Identifying how to get personal protective equipment and other resources needed to operate during a public emergency

Additionally, plans would be reviewed every other year and as soon as possible following the declaration of a public emergency. A copy would also be posted online, according to the bill.

Congregate Living Settings

Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-34), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said, “The virus is known to spread in congregate living settings, and sadly, we’ve seen this happen at alarming rates in our developmental centers. Even more concerning, people with disabilities are at a higher risk of experiencing complications from COVID-19. We must take action to ensure this doesn’t happen again, particularly as we prepare for a potential second wave of COVID-19 in the fall.”

During New Jersey’s four-month shelter-in-place order, community-based residential facilities and group homes were barred from allowing visitors, a restriction that Vainieri Huttle called “heartbreaking.”

While the assemblywoman said she understood the policy was enacted “for the safety of residents and their families alike,” separation for lengthy periods of time “can do enormous harm.”

Guidelines For Visitations

“We all depend on our families to get through difficult times,” she said. “Without regular visits – in some cases, daily – some residents felt isolated, anxious or depressed. Those with special needs like autism were distressed or confused by the disruption in routine and didn’t know where to turn.”

Her bill, A-4239, would require the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities, with assistance from the Department of Health, to establish policies and guidance for in-person visitation at licensed community-based settings for individuals with developmental disabilities during the current and future public emergencies.

“Now that we have a better understanding of the tools to combat COVID-19 – social distancing, face coverings and screening and testing among them – families have recently been allowed limited visits with their loved ones,” Vainieri Huttle said.

“However, we must ensure they will be able to stay connected should we see a second wave of the coronavirus. With this bill, we will ensure no resident in a community-based residential setting or a group home will have to face this crisis alone.”

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