It has been said the moral test of government is how it treats those who are most vulnerable. When the new legislative session began a few weeks ago, I was reappointed to Chair the Assembly Human Services Committee. My mission is to make sure that New Jersey meets that test and fulfills its obligation to protect and support individuals with special needs and their families.
In recent years, we have made progress in how our state treats individuals with disabilities. We now have a registry of caretakers who abuse clients, require the Department of Human Services to provide greater information to families on available services and programs as they make long-term plans, and have greater oversight of community care residences.
In addition, we increased funding into the developmental disability system and gave a much-needed cost-of-living-adjustment to the caretakers who play an invaluable role in the lives of loves one with special needs. We have even made efforts to reduce the stigma by removing the word “retarded” from state statutes.
Yet, as family members and advocates know, there is still so much more we must do for the special needs community. This session I will focus on pressing issues such as creating more sustainable supportive housing and wrap-around programs, preventing abuse and neglect, expanding special education services, and bringing mental health to the forefront.
Last session, I began efforts to bring more flexibility into the special education system so that students in religious schools have access to the same services and opportunities as those in public schools. I will certainly continue to champion that this session.
Further, I am sponsoring legislation to prevent abuse of individuals with developmental disabilities, improve response measures, and hold abusers accountable. A1109 would provide accountability and transparency in the way incidents of abuse are reported and addressed and A1074 is the “Protection for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities in Institutional and Community Settings Act,” which I am sponsoring with Assemblyman Gary Schaer.
New Jersey must also tackle the mental health crisis we face. Decreased work productivity, school violence, and addiction can all stem from mental health issues that go unresolved, yet each day I hear about individuals who wait months for treatment and then still have limited access to support programs. We must do better at promoting mental health wellness and increasing and improving resources.
Finally, I am committed to continuing to increase available community housing options and providing choice to individuals and their families in residential settings. This is critical for special needs persons in the post-21 age group and those with parents who are no longer able to care for them.
I look forward to engaging the state and our community as we work to improve the lives of individuals with special needs. By working together we can help meet that moral test of government and serve our most vulnerable.
By Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) – New Jersey