Advocates demand cameras in homes for developmentally disabled adults to reduce abuse

By: - December 5, 2022 7:11 am

Cynthia Allen, pictured at right with her son Nick Aquilino at the Woodbine Developmental Center, wants legislators to pass a bill that would allow group homes to install security cameras, a measure she thinks would reduce abuse and neglect. (Photo courtesy of Cynthia Allen)

When 33-year-old Nick Aquilino, who is severely autistic and completely nonverbal, suffered a broken finger in July 2021, he couldn’t say what happened — and no one at the state-run home for developmentally disabled adults in Cape May County where he lives had answers either.

“It was a bit of an unusual injury,” said his mother, Cynthia Allen. “The orthopedist explained it as the type of injury basketball players get when they go for a ball high up and their finger bends all the way back to their hand.”

Two weeks later, the same joint on Aquilino’s other hand got mysteriously injured, and an X-ray revealed another healed fracture his mother never knew about.

So Allen started keeping track, and found Aquilino has had 248 injuries in the past 17 months, averaging an injury every other day. For two-thirds of those injuries, workers at the Woodbine Developmental Center — where Allen supposedly is under one-on-one, 24-hour monitoring —couldn’t explain what happened, she said.

Allen asked state authorities to investigate. But without proof of wrongdoing, they told her they couldn’t hold anyone accountable, she said.

Now, Allen is on a crusade. She wants state legislators to act on a long-stalled bill that would require group homes to install security cameras in common areas and private rooms, if residents request and consent to such monitoring.

“I think Nick’s situation would be perfect for cameras because if they have one-to-one or two-to-one staff there and he’s still getting all these injuries and nobody knows what happens, you would look at the video, and there hopefully would be your answer,” she said.

Without change, Allen added, “my fear is that he’ll end up dead.”

Some health care providers have fought the bill, saying it unfairly paints all workers in these homes as abusers. Cameras would cost too much and haven’t been foolproof documentarians in homes that already have them, said Valerie Sellers, CEO of the New Jersey Association of Community Providers.

“It’s looked at as a panacea that will solve all abuse, neglect, and exploitation, because we’ll have cameras and we can see what’s going on 24/7,” Sellers said. “But that’s not going to happen. If you talk to any people with group homes that have cameras in them, they’ll tell you that sometimes staff will cover the cameras or move to other areas where they’re not being captured on camera.”

Billy Cray, 33, died in 2017 at the group home for developmentally disabled adults where he lived in Somers Point. A bill named after him would require group homes to install security cameras, if residents consent. (Photo courtesy of Martha Cray)

‘Astounding’ inaction

Calls for cameras in group homes started more than five years ago, when Billy Cray was found dead, face down on a bloody pillow, in the bedroom closet of his Somers Point group home.

An autopsy concluded he died of natural causes. But his mother, Martha, an outspoken disability rights advocate even before his August 2017 death, always suspected foul play because she said Billy, 33, had been repeatedly physically and sexually abused during 25 years of living in group homes.

After helping to pass the 2017 Stephen Komninos Law that strengthened protections for people with developmental disabilities, Cray again set her sights on Trenton, working with lawmakers to craft legislation known as “Billy Cray’s Law,” that would require group homes to install security cameras, with residents’ consent.

First introduced in May 2020, the bill has bipartisan support. It attracted 23 legislators as sponsors in the last legislative session and passed unanimously in two Assembly committees — but failed to move at all in the Senate.

Lawmakers reintroduced it for the current legislative session in February, and 22 legislators signed on as sponsors. But it has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing in either chamber.

That infuriates Cray.

“How many deaths of a client does it take to pass a law?” she said. “I find that astounding. I find it, oh my god, horrible. People are going to be continuing to bury their children. I’m offended that these are not considered. Bills that protect dogs get passed quicker than a bill passed for the disabled.”

One lawmaker said the bill isn’t deliberately being held, at least on the Assembly side. Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez (D-Hudson), the deputy speaker who chairs the Assembly’s human services committee where the bill is now stalled, called it “phenomenal” but told the New Jersey Monitor so many bills get introduced in the Legislature that some can take years to pass.

“I wish I was able to post all of the bills because this is a very good bill,” she said. “If I can’t move it this year, maybe next year.”

On the Senate side, the bill is stuck in the health committee that Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) chairs. Vitale didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Sen. Ed Durr (R-Gloucester) is a prime sponsor on the bill, and he’s as frustrated as Cray by the legislative inaction.

“We already acknowledge that monitoring is a good thing. We have cameras in courthouses, in police stations, in hospitals, in schools,” Durr said. “Why is there such an issue of monitoring vulnerable individuals who need care in homes?”

Nick Aquilino’s mother said workers have reported about 250 injuries since July 2021, most of which the staff couldn’t explain. (Photo courtesy of Cynthia Allen)

Privacy and cost concerns

Few dispute that abuse and neglect are common in the disability community.

A state watchdog reported in May his office fields claims of abuse and neglect of people with developmental disabilities “on a regular basis” and lamented insufficient transparency and accountability on the issue. And more than 400 people have been added in the past decade to a state registry of abusers barred from working in the industry, said Tom Hester, a spokesman for the state department of human services.

But critics say security cameras create new problems.

Advocates from groups including the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, the New Jersey Statewide Self-Advocacy Network, and Disability Rights New Jersey have testified against the bill, largely on privacy grounds.

“The use of mandated electronic monitoring devices in community settings violates an individual’s right to privacy, and there is little to no evidence that the use of (cameras) in community settings actually results in less abuse and neglect,” Disability Rights New Jersey Executive Director Gwen Orlowski told the Assembly in 2020.

Orlowski also raised concerns about who would have access to security footage, how long it would be maintained, and how homes would safeguard recordings from being leaked online.

Sellers worries about costs. Her group estimates it would run $12,000 to $15,000 per home to buy and install cameras, with data storage an added unknown cost.

That money would be better spent hiring more qualified staff — and boosting salaries to attract more applicants, Sellers said.

“You’re hiring people at $17 an hour, and they’re responsible for community integration, ensuring the health of the individuals, getting them to doctor’s appointments, changing diapers, toileting, bathing, administering medications, implementing behavioral plans. These are complex positions,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s society or a state that seems to think it’s OK to pay so little and expect so much of these individuals.”

Transparency needed

Sen. Ed Durr is a prime sponsor on Billy Cray’s Law. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Durr doesn’t think it has to be an either-or situation between security cameras and higher worker pay.

“I’m conservative, and I’m always going to err on the side of fiscal responsibility. But people like to spend money in New Jersey, and if we’re going to spend money, let’s at least spend it in the right area for the right reasons,” he said. “Somebody’s life and safety is worth any dollar.”

Devious criminals might foil a surveillance system, Durr agreed. But video has helped authorities hold abusers accountable, including a worker fired after he was caught on camera choking a disabled man with his lanyard at a Salem County treatment center in 2019.

My fear is that he'll end up dead.

– Cynthia Allen, mother of a man in a home for developmentally disabled adults

Billy Cray’s Law, as it’s written, addresses group homes and wouldn’t actually help Aquilino or the other nearly 1,100 people who live in the state’s five developmental centers. But Durr said he’s open to amending the law to include the state-run centers, and Allen said she has advocated for their inclusion. Cameras are already installed in “some exterior areas” of the centers, Hester said.

Aquilino has some self-harming behaviors, so his mother has become accustomed to receiving injury reports over the years. But when the reports spiked — including 13 injuries in a single recent weekend — Allen demanded better explanations for her son’s wounds.

“I’ve personally witnessed staff grab him by the arm and pull him around — they’ve done that in front of me, and they’re supposed to be completely hands-off,” Allen said.

Woodbine officials assigned an extra worker to monitor him, she said. But even with two workers tasked with watching Aquilino within a few feet around the clock, most of his injuries continue to be listed as of unknown origin.

“It’s the most amazing thing, with that level of staffing, that they still don’t know what happened,” she said. “I mean, here’s somebody right there in front of your eyes.”

In 2014, after Aquilino inexplicably suffered a broken nose, investigators did sustain that incident as abuse and identified a worker as the culprit, Allen said.

Usually, though, the injuries remain a mystery.

“They don’t say, ‘We don’t think there was any abuse and neglect.’ They say, ‘We don’t know what happened,’” Allen said. “And so then nothing happens.”

Hester declined to comment on any investigation into Aquilino’s injuries.

“We cannot discuss individuals or investigations, but the top priority is always the health and safety of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” he said. “All complaints are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly by a robust system of oversight and monitoring critical to helping ensure the health, safety, and well-being of individuals receiving services and supports.”

But Allen has lost her trust in the system.

“A good percentage of the other family members that I know in this community, their loved ones are dead, whether they choked to death while having a seizure or got abused,” Allen said. “There are many, many, many risks in these places. It’s very mysterious, and it shouldn’t be. It should be transparent.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.