They live three to a room, in a space that is visibly dirty and smells like urine and feces. They have serious mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries and are segregated from the rest of the nursing home.
Woodland Behavioral and Nursing Center at Andover in Sussex County, now facing a widening investigation into allegations of abuse and neglect, confines nearly 200 residents with mental illness and developmental disabilities on a locked floor that operates like an “unlicensed psychiatric hospital,” charged the leader of a Trenton-based legal group that advocates for the human, civil, and legal rights of those with disabilities.
After visiting the facility Wednesday, Gwen Orlowski, executive director for Disability Rights New Jersey said she immediately contacted the commissioners for the departments of Human Services and Health and urged them to go see it for themselves.
“They languish, prisoners of the 3rd floor without much hope that anyone cares, that they will ever leave and return to the community,” according to Orlowski’s email to Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “Without exception, all of the people I spoke to feel forsaken.”
The state must respond quickly to remedy an “inhumane” situation and what appears to be “a civil rights and human rights violation,” Orlowski told NJ Advance Media.
Menachem Spiegel, the administrator of Woodland, did not respond to requests for comment.
Orlowski said state Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli responded to her email immediately, and on Thursday morning, and they met to discuss Disability Rights’ concerns.
In a joint statement, Adelman and Persichilli said they “take all claims that may place residents in jeopardy very seriously” and spoke to Gwen Orlowski yesterday. Gwen was informed that Department of Health and Department of Human Services officials intend to visit the facility.
“The Commissioners are discussing this situation regularly and are working together to put the health and safety of the residents first,” the statement said.
The third floor is home to 196 people diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, mental illness or developmental disabilities, or recovering from strokes, according to Orlowski. They live three to a room, in a space that is visibly dirty and smells like urine and feces. The floor is not locked, but no one can use the elevator to leave without permission, she said.
Orlowski said she spoke to one man who said he had not stepped outside Woodland for a year.
For Orlowski, who vividly recalls her grandmother’s extended stays in psychiatric facilities, the visit to Woodland’s third floor was searingly painful. “They really are the most vulnerable amongst us, and I worry no one cares about them,” she said.
Orlowski stressed hat the frontline staff appeared dedicated and were helpful. “The staff I saw working there today are working under extraordinary circumstances,” she said.
Taxpayers foot the bill for the roughly 450 people who live at Woodland. The Medicaid program, which is state and federally funded, pays $216 a day per resident from New Jersey, according to Human Services spokesman Tom Hester. About 70% of the residents are from New Jersey, with the remaining 30% coming from New York, which also pays $216 per resident per day.
Woodland calls itself as a “behavioral health facility,” Orlowski said, but it is not a licensed “behavioral health special care nursing home.” Woodland has a psychiatrist who dispenses medication, but that is the extent of any treatment, she said.
The facility does not have the authority to involuntarily commit residents — a decision that is made by a judge when a person is deemed dangerous to themselves or others, she added.
“You cannot be deprived of liberty without due process of law.,” Orlowski said. Liberty is freedom of movement, she said, to do something as basic as “to go out the front door and have a walk around the grounds.” The residents of the third floor are “essentially prisoners,” she said.
Disability Rights is investigating how many live there against their will and want to relocate to a group home or another supervised setting, she said.
For many years, New Jersey has lacked sufficient supervised housing for people with disabilities, she noted. Many become homeless and wind up in nursing homes, she said.
Orlowski said she has conveyed to the state her concerns that Woodland may be transferring out residents.
“That is of significant concern for us. We don’t want people traumatized by a quick move that won’t meet their needs,” Orlowski said. “It’s important to do independent assessments. The state absolutely understands that is critically important.”
“We want to make sure they are transferred to the right setting with the rights support,” she said.
Some should be moved out and receive supervised care in a group home, while others who choose to stay should have access to the kind of mental health treatment they need, she said.
Woodland’s future, meanwhile, may be in doubt.
Federal regulators have given the owners until March 3 to remedy a long list of deficiencies or risk losing all Medicaid and Medicare funding. The federal oversight agency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said Woodland has amassed a list of violations that place residents in “immediate jeopardy,” which include a lack of monitoring of residents with COVID-19 symptoms and vaccination rates.
The latest inspection report does not identify the problems Orlowski reported to the state concerning the locked third floor.
“We have a broken system that funnels those people into nursing homes,” she said. “What COVID did was shine a light on how broken the long-term care system is.”
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