VOORHEES Lauren Meltzer doesn’t want to leave her home of 11 years. But she might have to, since the New Jersey Department of Human Services has informed the South Jersey native that it will no longer pay for the special needs services she receives in Connecticut.
Meltzer has a mild form of autism, along with an intellectual disability, bipolar depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder. As a high school student, she was bullied and struggled with mental health crises. So at 18, when New Jersey didn’t have an appropriate therapeutic program in the state, her family found one elsewhere at Chapel Haven in New Haven, Connecticut. Her school district paid for the program until she was 21, and then the state took over because there were no similar programs here.
She’s been at Chapel Haven ever since, in a supportive environment with high-functioning people like herself. She has two jobs, and serves as a mentor for younger clients. There, she is viewed as a successful leader, not as someone with disabilities.
Removing their daughter from her home “is a deep concern for us,” said Lauren’s mother, Erna Page-Meltzer. “When Lauren first went to Chapel Haven, her condition was very unstable. “We knew she needed a small world that would keep her safe, and yet would give her extreme structure.”
New Jersey has struggled to find appropriate placement for other high-functioning adults with special needs and mental illness. Between 30 and 40 percent of people with developmental disabilities also have a mental health disorder, according to a 2008 report by a state task force convened to study the problem.
In response to lawsuits targeting long-term placements in institutions, the state has expanded the number of group homes and community services in recent years. New Jersey has contracts with about 250 provider agencies for such services. But it has also increased the number of specialized units serving dually diagnosed patients in its state psychiatric hospitals. There aren’t enough services in between, advocates say.
Indeed, the 2008 state task force report found the system needs “urgent reform.” But state funding for the department has remained flat since 2013, while federal funding has increased by more than $4 billion, according to Raymond J. Castro, a senior analyst for N.J. Policy Perspective, who left the state Department of Human Services a decade ago.
“If the state can’t get federal funding for it, it’s not a priority,” Castro said. “There are huge needs that are not being met. This is the real price that’s being paid in our state because we do not have a properly structured budget … and adequate revenues.”
Without state support, Meltzer’s parents would be forced to pay more than $30,000 a year for their daughter’s services at Chapel Haven, not including living expenses. Their other option is to place Meltzer on Connecticut’s waiting list for services.
Meltzer says, “If I could make my own decision, I’d say, yes, I’m staying at Chapel Haven. Permanently. Because Chapel Haven is my home. I’m not going to forget about that.”