🔴 Moms say their sons with autism keep getting unexplained injuries

🔴 Claims of abuse are repeatedly dismissed as "unsubstantiated"

🔴 A bill would mandate cameras in group homes

Broken fingers, painful tooth decay, and mysterious bruises on disabled residents at New Jersey's developmental centers have parents worried that their sons will die in the state's care.

Cynthia Allen says her son, Nick, 34, has severe autism, is nonverbal and self-injures by biting himself and hitting himself in the head.

He's been living at Vineland Developmental Center, a facility run by the state Department of Human Services, since late September. Allen described VDC as a “militaristic” and “secretive” compound with “dungeon-like rooms.”

“His life is at risk," Allen told New Jersey 101.5. "Sometimes it feels like you know more parents with dead children than alive."

(Google Maps/Canva)
(Google Maps/Canva)

Nick suffered a broken foot within his first few weeks there, Allen said. He also became "emaciated" due to a change in his diet and a change in medication disrupted his sleeping patterns.

Another mother, Priscilla Quesada said her nonverbal son with autism has been losing weight and developing bruises after moving to Hunterdon Developmental Center in Union Township.

Quesada said new bruises keep appearing on Brandon's body and that he's lost over 20 pounds, from a lean 155 pounds down to around 130 pounds.

“I don’t know what they do to my son behind those doors. They won’t let me in. I'm desperate,” Quesada told New Jersey 101.5.

Bruises on Nick that appeared at Hunterdon Developmental Center. (Priscilla Quesada)
Bruises on Nick that appeared at Hunterdon Developmental Center. (Priscilla Quesada)

Bill would put cameras in NJ group homes

A proposed law requiring group homes to install cameras in common areas, if residents agree to them, could give moms like Quesada and Allen more insight into what is happening to their sons.

Assemblyman Chris DePhillips, R-Bergen, said the bill, A5676, balances privacy and safety.

"If these group homes have nothing to hide, they should be okay with the surveillance," DePhillips said.

He said the bill could be expanded to mandate cameras in more areas of group homes in the future but that it serves as a starting point.

Aileen Rivera (left) and Martha Cray review proposed legislation regarding cameras in group homes on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (Photo courtesy Aileen Rivera)
Aileen Rivera (left) and Martha Cray review proposed legislation regarding cameras in group homes on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (Photo courtesy Aileen Rivera)

The bill is named Billy Cray’s Law. The 33-year-old Cray was found dead, face down on a bloody pillow, in the closet of a group home in Somers Point. An autopsy found he died from natural causes.

His mother, Martha Cray, said a detective found the death suspicious and that he had been abused at group homes in New Jersey for 25 years. She believes cameras would have provided answers about her son's death and deterred staff abuse.

Quesada and Allen both said that they desperately want cameras in developmental centers and group homes. The moms were even willing to pay out of pocket to put cameras in their sons' rooms and bathrooms — private areas where they worry abuse could otherwise go undetected.

The state Department of Human Services does not comment on pending legislation, spokesperson Eva Loayza-Mcbride said to New Jersey 101.5.

(Priscilla Quesada)
(Priscilla Quesada)

Investigations into abuse at state facilities

Loayza-Mcbride said DHS investigates all complaints of possible abuse at developmental centers.

"The Department demands the best from the providers and caregivers that support the individuals we serve, and our top priority is always the health and safety of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities," said Loayza-Mcbride.

A team of 60 staffers with the DHS Office of Investigations is responsible for handling civil complaints of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. If needed, the OI will work with outside law enforcement agencies.

After an investigation, accusations against staff in DHS facilities are either unsubstantiated or substantiated. And the burden of proof is placed upon the accuser.

Nonverbal residents complicate investigations

Priscilla Quesada said she's raised concerns about staff abuse repeatedly to DHS. Despite her complaints, investigators continue to find that any accusations of abuse are unsubstantiated.

She was recently told that one of Brandon's black eyes was caused when he slipped in the shower. Brandon, who is nonverbal, is unable to give his perspective to investigators.

(Priscilla Quesada)
(Priscilla Quesada)

Quesada is also convinced that her son was sexually assaulted at Hunterdon Developmental Center. She said that Brandon, who had never before exhibited sexually suggestive behavior, tried to pull down his aunt's pants; she said it appeared he was mimicking actions he had seen recently.

Documents showed that investigators with the OI interviewed Brandon's mother, his aunt, and the staff. They also tried, unsuccessfully, to speak with Brandon.

Without any outside source, such as video, to prove what had happened, investigators determined that the accusations were unsubstantiated, Quesada said.

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