TRENTON — The coronavirus pandemic will likely forever change the way group homes in New Jersey keep their residents socially connected, whether or not there's a health threat present.

A proposed state law wants to ensure it does.

A bill approved in late January by the Assembly Human Services Committee would require that community-based residential programs in New Jersey, as a condition of licensure, implement and adhere to policies that foster personal connection and prevent social isolation of residents.

According to the bill's language, these policies at group homes, supervised apartments, and other residential settings for individuals with developmental disabilities, would relate to both in-person activities and times at which in-person contact may be restricted.

"While social distancing guidelines have saved countless lives, they have also led to the social isolation of those living in community-based centers," bill sponsors Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, Assemblywoman Joann Downey, D-Monmouth, and Assemblyman Daniel Benson, D-Mercer, said. "This bill will prioritize the mental and physical well-being of those in group homes by allowing them to get the social interaction they have lacked over the past year and reduce their social isolation."

Under the bill, disciplinary action would be possible for programs that fail to comply with the bill's specific provisions. The bill says the state Department of Human Services would be required to distribute available state and federal funds, upon request, to programs that need help acquiring the necessary technology to reduce the social isolation threat.

"To fully implement this bill, we just have to keep in mind that there must be appropriate funding," said Thomas Baffuto, executive director of The Arc of New Jersey. "In some instances ... a large amount of staff may be needed to fulfill the requirements of this legislation."

Testifying before the Assembly committee, Baffuto, along with other organizations in New Jersey that serve individuals with disabilities, said they are already implementing policies similar to what's being proposed in A-5123. They want to ensure that if the bill were to become law, organizations would have a chance to correct shortcomings before any disciplinary action takes place during the licensure process.

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