MORRISTOWN — When Jennifer Sullivan lived on a farm in New Hampshire for two years, the 26-year-old petite woman with autism hiked, worked in a bakery and tended to lambs and cows. She ate fruits and vegetables. She liked to socialize.
After four years in a group home in Bridgewater, Jennifer has developed cavities and gum disease because she binges on junk food and doesn’t like to brush her teeth, according to her mother, Joan Sullivan of Rutherford. When she is not at work organizing shopping bags at a supermarket, Jennifer typically refuses to leave her bedroom. She hits herself when she is agitated, her mother said.
Joan Sullivan has pleaded with the Christie administration to let Jennifer return to Plowshare Farm in Greenfield, N.H. a community for people with developmental disabilities. But the administration won’t do it — even though Gov. Chris Christie signed a law last year that ended the policy that forced Jennifer’s return.
Halting the “Return Home New Jersey” policy allowed 370 people with developmental and intellectual disabilities to remain in a home outside the state — a victory for the dozens of families who convinced lawmakers the move would have been psychologically disruptive, and for some even medically risky.
Jennifer Sullivan is among the 170 the state transferred back from 2009 to 2015 when the policy was in effect. “Return Home” was created to save the state money and bring people closer to their families.
Yet, according to Plowshare’s website, the program costs about $55,000 — about one-third of what an average group home placement costs in New Jersey. And Sullivan said she would rather her daughter thrive several hours away than live closer to home not meeting her needs.
“She is in a reputable group home, but she is isolated, afraid of her housemates and staff and cannot go out the door alone, ride her bike or visit friends,” Sullivan said during a recent visit to the century-old mansion that houses Morristown Unitarian Fellowship — one of places she takes her daughter every week to keep her busy.
“She has no meaningful work,” Sullivan continued. “She has no cultural or educational activities. She has regressed socially and behaviorally, and lost skills. She has become self abusive — hits herself in the face. It’s awful to watch when she is hurting herself.”
State officials do not agree that Jennifer is regressing, according to emails between the state’s department’s Division of Developmental Disabilities and Sullivan’s attorney Johanna Burke.
“The facts do not warrant placement out of state,” according to a July 26, 2016 email from Carol Jones, the division’s chief of staff. It’s the same message repeated in a half-dozen emails since that time, even after a special education consultant Burke hired described Jennifer’s living conditions as “no better than if she were on a ward in a state hospital.”
A state spokeswoman…