Trigger Warning: Discussion of physical and emotional abuse, discussion of fatal incidents in group homes
Across the country, when disabled people are abused and neglected, it often goes unreported or underreported. Here in New Jersey, there is no requirement that when a group home resident is injured or even killed it be reported promptly, or even at all. This void has allowed group homes and other service providers to get away with hurting the people they are supposed to help time and time again.
The failures in this system were underscored in the 2007 death of Stephen Komninos here in New Jersey. In 2007, Komninos, a 22-year old with multiple disabilities died choking on a bagel outside of a 7-Eleven in Stratford, NJ.
Komninos had been living in a Group Home administered by Bancroft Neurohealth for 13 years and on October 4, 2007, his caregiver took him to a 7-Eleven to buy himself a cigar, and left Komninos unattended. Komninos grabbed a plastic-wrapped bagel, walked outside (his caregiver was supposed to remain within arms-length of Komninos at all times) and while trying to eat the bagel began choking. Eyewitnesses reported that the caregiver was not present when Komninos began choking, did not know how to perform CPR, and asked bystanders for assistance in doing so.
Bancroft did not promptly notify Komninos’ parents of the incident, and it took many hours – all the while Stephen was in the hospital on life support – for action to be taken. Sadly, Komninos died as a result of this neglect.
Worse than the neglect was that Bancroft had a history of abuse and neglect and yet continued to operate. In 2002, another resident, Matthew Goodman, died from several respiratory and circulatory problems, partially attributed to Bancroft’s excessive use of sedation and restraints. In 2005, the State of New Jersey found Bancroft used excessive restraints (ASAN-NJ is against all use of restraints, seclusion, and aversives), was inadequately staffed, and that there was potential neglect. Sadly, none of this led to new placements or to Bancroft being forced to close, and this led to the tragic death of Stephen Komninos in 2007.
Almost a decade later, change may finally be coming to New Jersey. Currently, NJ Bill A2503/S516 has made it through the Assembly Human Service Committee last week, and will be heading to the New Jersey Appropriations Committee in the coming days and weeks. If passed, the bill will support many needed improvements to the New Jersey Mental Health system, including:
- Introduces Random site inspections at group homes that have a history of or risk for abuse, neglect, or exploitation by caregivers.
- Required notification of guardians or authorized family members within one hour of any physical injury at a group home.
- Requirement that within 48 hours of any injury incident in a group home the Department of Human Services send a representative to begin investigation on the injury.
- Required drug testing during the application process and random drug testing for caregivers in group home settings, and required reporting if a supervisor has suspicion that an employee is using any controlled substance on the job. Violators are be subject to both termination of employment and escalating fines for repeated offenses starting at $5,000 for the first offense.
- Other improvements to the way abuse is defined and expanded use of a central registry for abuse incidents in order to identify repeat offenders.
Though not perfect (the bill does not provide a clear mechanism for closing group homes that repeatedly abuse residents, for example), the Stephen Komninos Bill represents a significant step forward for New Jersey’s mental health system and will help bring abuse incidents forward. ASAN-NJ strongly urges the State Assembly and State Senate to pass the bill into law.
Caregivers have significant trust and responsibility, and they should not be able to hide from accountability. If you would like to get involved, contact your state senator or state assemblyperson (you can visit this site to find your legislator) and urge them to support A2503/S516, Stephen Komninos’ Bill.