The Assembly on Monday unanimously granted final legislative approval to a bill sponsored by Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Jamel Holley to ensure that all workers hired to care for individuals with developmental disabilities undergo a criminal background check.
In October, Vainieri Huttle vowed to lead the charge in the Assembly to close a loophole after a State Auditor report detailed how some employees, including one convicted murderer, have been able to evade existing law and get hired. The changes included in the bill are based on recommendations in the State Auditor’s report following its investigation of licensed residential programs serving individuals with developmental disabilities.
“This report confirmed some of our worst fears and underscored the need to do more to protect our most vulnerable residents,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “We need to ensure that there are no ambiguities in the law. Anyone entrusted with the day-to-day care and well-being of individuals who often can’t speak or fend for themselves should be vetted to the fullest.”
Specifically, the bill (A-5210) would expand the current federal and state background check requirement for agencies who serve individuals with developmental disabilities. The bill expressly requires federal and state background checks for individuals who operate agencies that serve individuals with brain injuries, community care residences, any household members of the community care residences, and any alternates for the community care residences.
“Families place their faith in these employees to watch over their loved ones with respect and compassion,” said Holley (D-Union). “This bill will seal the cracks that have allowed unqualified individuals to slip through before and ensure that due diligence is applied when hiring individuals to care for some of our most vulnerable.”
The bill also shifts the onus of responsibility for reviewing the background checks from the agency to the state. Additionally, the bill establishes a timeline for challenging the findings of these background checks for both the individuals and the state.
Furthermore, the bill clarifies in statute that all residences for individuals with developmental disabilities which are licensed by the Department of Human Services or the Department of Children and Families are required to have an annual inspection. The bill also allows for unannounced follow-up visits to check on noted problems.
If deficiencies are identified during this inspection that would endanger the life or safety of the residents, the bill requires a follow-up on-site inspection to ascertain if the corrective plan to address the deficiencies was implemented.
Vainieri Huttle was the lead sponsor of “Stephen Komninos’ Law,” which was enacted in October to strengthen protections for children and adults with development disabilities by boosting transparency and accountability to help thwart potential abuse and neglect by caregivers. The law was named to honor a young man who died at the age of 22 while under the care of a private state-licensed facility for individuals with developmental disabilities.
“For four years I worked with advocates and the family of Stephen Komninos who lived through the tragedy of losing a son in this environment. Families deserve greater peace of mind and these individuals deserve the utmost respect and quality care. This bill is a continuation of the commitment I made to them to ensure that,” added Vainieri Huttle.
The measure now heads to the Governor’s desk.