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Saturday, May 18, 2024

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Parents of Developmental Center Clients Cite Abuse

NICK AQUILINO

By Christopher South

WOODBINE – On Dec. 15, Cynthia Allen sent an email to nine people at the N.J. Department of Human Services plus a 10th person at the Office of the Treasurer concerning her son, who is a resident at the Woodbine Developmental Center. 
She informed the officials that her son Nick Aquilino, 33, had a grossly swollen index finger on the same joint where this finger was broken in July 2021. She said the injury had gone unnoticed even with one-on-one staff.
Allen thought it could have been retaliation for speaking to the press. 
When the nursing staff called her to inform her, she was told the doctor said there was no trauma, and an x-ray was not necessary. Allen said the injury looked worse than when her son’s finger was broken in July 2021. 
On March 16, 2021, the Herald published a story about a man, Lou Berman Sr., who pulled his autistic son Louis Jr. out of the Woodbine Developmental Center alleging abuse and neglect by staff toward his nonverbal autistic son. Shortly thereafter, Allen wrote a letter asking, “What if (the father’s) allegations are not true?” adding that the injuries could have been self-inflicted, caused by restraints, or were the result of seizures. 
“What if, as a result of Berman’s allegations, irreparable damage is done, funding is withdrawn from Woodbine Developmental Center (WDC) and the facility is forced to close?” Allen wrote in her March 24, 2021, letter.
Allen’s next contact with the Herald was on Nov. 30, 2022, when she said her son suffered 245 injuries in the previous 17 months, not counting the one she described from Dec. 15. Allen said her son has severe autism, is non-verbal, is profoundly developmentally disabled, and is extremely vulnerable. He has been a resident at the WDC since 2010. 
Allen said in 2014, she believes staff at WDC broke Nick’s nose, and claims abuse and neglect were substantiated.”
“Then, in July 2021, he had two broken fingers which were a complete mystery,” she said.
Allen said under Stephen Komninos’ Law the staff are supposed to document any injury and report it to the resident’s legal guardian within two hours. Allen said, of the 245 documented injuries in just under a year and a half, two-thirds of them occurred at a time when Nick had a one-on-one aide, or even two aides, who she said are supposed to be “at arm’s length.”
“Even with that level of staffing they often have no idea what happened,” Allen wrote.
Allen said, over a little more than one weekend in October, Nick sustained 13 injuries, all of which were listed as being of unknown origin. Then, on Nov. 1, during an overnight shift, a body check revealed four more injuries. 
“I was given no explanation for what happened. There are investigations, but they are almost never substantiated. Cameras would help, but my request for one was ignored,” she said. 
Cameras for use in developmental centers and group homes is a matter of debate. 
Martha Cray has been an advocate for the developmentally disabled for many decades, she said. Cray knows Allen, and said she is working to advance Billy Cray’s Law. Cray’s son, Billy, 33, was found dead on the floor of his room, in January 2017, at Deveraux Advanced Behavioral Health in Somers Point, which Cray said is a sister agency with WDC. He was face down on a bloody pillow. Cray said an autopsy performed at the WDC determined he died of natural causes. 
Cray believes Billy was beaten up “really good.” 
“And they didn’t call me and say my son died. The Roselle Park police told me,” she said.
Berman characterized what happened to Billy Cray as murder. 
Assembly Bill A-2483 would provide certain requirements for the use of electronic monitoring devices (EMDs) at group homes for individuals with developmental disabilities. An “EMD” is a camera or other electronic device that uses video, but not audio, recording capabilities to monitor the activities taking place in the area where the device is installed.”
The bill has been debated in Trenton, where advocates say they want the protection cameras to offer them some sense of security. Opponents call them an invasion of privacy and say it would offer parents or guardians a false sense of security. 
Berman agrees with installing cameras in developmental centers and group homes, but he said they are not the “end all – be all.” He said the problem is that employees can take clients out of view of the cameras.
Cray said DHS needs to follow through with all of its compliance safeguards, such as unannounced visits.
During a telephone interview last week, Allen said according to the facility her son had injured himself. Allen her son might injure himself, including biting his own hands or forearms, but she doubted that bruises on his buttocks or backs of his legs were self-inflicted. 
Berman reported similar findings with his son Louie, who had marks on his rear end like he was beaten – “front and rear.” Berman said Louie often had black eyes. 
Cray said her son Billy was a runner, which could be a problem for staff.  
“As time went on, when I would visit, he looked like a prize fighter got to him. We sat down in the office, and he said they tied his sleeves behind his back and were punching him. They said he did it to himself,” Cray said. “It went nowhere.”
Allen said that in 2014, the emergency room physician said Nick had multiple healed fractures of the nose. After an investigation into Nick’s broken fingers in July 2021, Allen said the Office of Investigations within the DHS concluded it had no idea what happened.
Berman said his son was subjected to physical abuse. 
“My son almost died. They said he had a seizure – he didn’t. He was being physical, and they choked him out. They are very skilled at claiming excuses to circumvent responsibility for their actions or inactions that led to injury or death,” he said. 
Cray said she believes Billy was also sexually assaulted by another client at WDC and other facilities. What’s worse, Cray said, employees are aware of the abuse. She said an employee stopped a high-functioning client, who she claims is a known predator, from approaching Billy. Her son told her the worker told the other client, “Not Billy. He’s off-limits.”
After Billy gave a statement to an investigator he was transferred to another cottage. 
Cray said she hired a lawyer to help her get Billy out of WDC after five years, but not before he had teeth knocked out. 
“That place is a horror show, and they closed other development centers. I had to get him out of there,” Cray said. 
Berman said he believes his son was sexually assaulted, based on finding blood on his underwear and in his stools. He said parents are not notified of the history of people in WDC, saying some have a history of sexual abuse, and if so, the parents should be told.
“There are a host of things they don’t tell you,” Berman said. “If you wanted to send your kid to Woodbine, you can’t get any info. They are the most disengaged people. I didn’t find one person there who gave a s***,” he said. 
There is a feeling among the three parents that administration and staff either are not trained, do not care, or simply cover up things to save jobs. 
Berman is not afraid to use words such as “corruption” when talking about the way the WDC operates.
“Employees at the WDC are involved in corruption and gang up on those who want to do the right thing,” he said. “They will make an accusation against the whistleblower, calling them a racist or a rapist. They are as thick as thieves.”
“The state will never do anything about it. Nobody wants to take it on. The corruption is so deep would have to undo everything. It would take someone from the outside to attempt correction, otherwise, the machine, the system, would kill it,” Berman said.
However, in 2019 Bellweather Behavioral Health was barred by the state from running group homes in New Jersey. The same year, the state revoked the license of AdvoServ, which was also operating group homes in New Jersey.
Berman said that while the state did eventually shut down some of these facilities, the individuals who were responsible for the conditions that led to the group homes being shut down are still in the system.
Through Louiesvoive.com, Berman says the best option to get out of the system and care for them yourself tapping into Self-Directed Services set up through the Division of Developmental Disabilities. 
“The state has realized there are a lot of parents like me that can do a better job,” Berman said. 
Allen is heartsick that she cannot simply pull Nick out of WDC. 
“I feel his safety is at great jeopardy. This is a state-run institution,” Allen said. 
She believes WDC is lacking behavioral support technicians, and the workers are most care staff, and jump from one position to another. 
“The fact that there is a lack of behavioral support there is a problem,” Allen said.  “I hate to have to leave him there.”
“Why doesn’t DHS go in and do an unannounced inspection,” Cray said.  
Berman said the state needs to hire and train people with the right sort of aptitude and personality for taking care of the intellectually disabled, and he applauds those who fit that description. 
“There are people with huge hearts and they are heroes, but there’s not enough of them, and the bad ones gang up on the good ones,” he said.  

DHS spokesperson Tom Hester responded to the Herald’s inquiry for comments, and said, “DHS cannot discuss individuals or investigations, but the top priority is always the health and safety of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  All complaints are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly by a robust system of oversight and monitoring critical to helping ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of individuals receiving services and supports.”

Hester said the DHS system of oversight and monitoring includes the following steps within the Office of Program Integrity & Accountability (OPIA), which operates independently of the Division of Developmental Disabilities.

One is the Critical Incident Management Unit, which provides oversight in all matters related to incident reporting and the tracking, response and follow up to reported incidents. The unit “provides oversight of and technical assistance to providers and developmental centers to ensure adherence to incident reporting requirements.”

Another portion is the Employment Controls and Compliance Unit. This unit, “Performs background checks for the on-boarding processes for the hiring and continued employment of staff working in programs providing services, including criminal history records through fingerprint checks, Child Abuse Registry Checks (CARI), drug testing, and adherence to the Department’s Central Registry of Offenders against Individuals with Developmental Disabilities.

The Incident Verification Unit, “Performs in-person verifications of reported incidents and allegations.”

Finally, the Office of Investigations, “Performs civil investigations of allegations/incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation and other serious incidents involving individuals receiving services from the Department at the five developmental centers and in the community. When necessary, the Office of Investigations partners with appropriate law enforcement agencies.”

Hester suggested that anyone wishing to learn more about reporting suspected abuse visit Division of Developmental Disabilities | Report Suspected Abuse (nj.gov).
 Responding to specific questions from the Herald, Hester first addressed the question as to whether or not DHS was conducting two unannounced inspections per year at the Woodbine Developmental Center. 
“Developmental centers are inspected annually and Woodbine continues to be in compliance,” Hester said. 
Asked about how much caregiving training is required for Woodbine staff, Hester responded, “All direct care staff receive a weeklong orientation upon hire. Areas of training include but are not limited to: Komninos’ Law, reporting unusual incidents, behavior management, and Danielle’s Law. Staff then receive ongoing training throughout their employment and are trained on the care needs of the individuals to which they are assigned.”
Finally, asked how much training is required for staff members who care for individuals one-on-one, Hester said, “Any staff providing enhanced supervision for an individual is trained on the care needs of that individual.”
CORRECTION: The DHS comments did not appear when the story was first posted. The Herald regrets the omission. 
Do you have a story to tell about your family member who is living in a congregate setting for the developmentally disabled? Contact csouth@cmcherald.com.

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