What to Know
An I-Team review shows New Jersey spends most of its gambling revenue on group homes for the developmentally disabled
However, there have been notable recent reports of abuse and neglect at some of the group homes receiving state tax money
Some say that a facility getting its license revoked shows the system works, while others think the money should be used for improvements
With sports and online betting now legalized, anyone with a smartphone in New Jersey has a casino in his or her pocket. The state is banking on a gambling revenue windfall.
But where is all that new money going?
An I-Team review of state budget records shows New Jersey spends most of its gambling revenue on group homes for the developmentally disabled. Between 2012 and 2017, the state used more than $870 million in gambling taxes to pay private companies and nonprofits that run the group homes. That’s more than two thirds of all the gambling taxes collected in those six years.
As expectations for even more gambling dollars mount, there’s a new debate about how to use them, because New Jersey group homes have been plagued by recent reports of abuse and neglect.
This year, the state’s biggest provider of group homes, a for-profit company called Bellwether Behavioral Health, lost its license after an independent monitor found a pattern of neglect including "bathrooms with feces smeared," "bedrooms that smelled of urine," "overwhelming black flies," "rotten food," and several group homes "not following physician orders."
One of the complaints against Bellwether came from the family of Francesca Gregorio, an autistic woman under Bellwether’s care in 2017. A lawsuit filed on Gregorio’s behalf says the disabled woman was somehow allowed to drink undiluted oven cleaner after Bellwether staff left a cabinet unlocked.
“She was left unsupervised,” said Carolann Clynes, Gregorio’s aunt. “It basically destroyed her entire digestive system from the throat down, so as consequence, she’s on a feeding tube 24-7 for the rest of her life.”
Wellspring Capital, the private equity fund that owns Bellwether Behavioral Health, declined to answer questions from the I-Team, but in court documents the company denied any negligence in Gregorio’s care.
But Bellwether is far from the only group home provider facing recent allegations of mistreatment.
According to a review of inspection records, in 2017 New Jersey’s Division of Developmental Disabilities recorded 409 reports of abuse and neglect at group homes. That’s about a 30 percent increase in complaints since 2012. Because the state did not provide annual numbers of group home residents in each year, it’s not clear if that spike in reporting represents an increase in the rate of abuse and neglect claims per resident.
New Jersey’s Department of Human Services, which oversees group homes, declined to answer questions from the I-Team. Tom Hester, a departmental spokesman, suggested Bellwether’s loss of license is proof state oversight is working.
“The Department demands the best from group homes,” Hester said. “Our top priority is always the health and safety of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” Hester added that gambling taxes from the Casino Reserve Fund pay for only about 14 percent of the state’s developmental disabilities budget.
But State Senator Vin Gopal (D–Long Branch), who sits on the Casino Revenue Fund Advisory Commission, said the failure of Bellwether should be a wakeup call to use gambling revenue for tougher enforcement.
“We’re not doing a good job right now, as far as making sure all bad actors are being removed,” said Gopal. “One of the advantages of passing sports betting, which there was a lot, is that we would increase the budget of the Casino Revenue Fund from $187 million to $234 million in two years.”
Last year, Gopal sponsored Senate Bill S178, which would require state inspectors make more frequent, unannounced visits to group homes, but not everyone believes new gambling dollars should support additional enforcement.
Terry McKeon, Executive Director of AVIDD Community Services, manages 14 group homes, and says the best way to improve conditions for disabled residents is to use the influx of gambling revenue to simply pay caretakers more.
“We call them direct support professionals, but we’re not paying them as professionals. Not even close,” McKeon said. “Our competitors are fast food restaurants. That’s how low they make. Their average salary is $11.50.”
Last year, lawmakers approved $20 million to bump up the pay for care providers at group homes. McKeon said that amounted to about a 25 cents per hour raise. He suggested additional gambling tax revenue could support a much larger raise for group home employees.
“Knowing that the gambling casino revenue is tied directly to services for people with developmental disabilities is something I was unaware of,” McKeon said. “I’m definitely going to tell my colleagues about that. We want to have more of a say in where that money goes.”
David Wikstrom, the attorney representing Francesca Gregorio, suggested his client’s case illustrates that New Jersey needs both tougher oversight and higher pay for group home staff.
“Higher qualifications, higher training standards, better background checks, and more supervision,” Wikstrom said. “The more you keep these programs under the microscope, the better care that will probably be given.”
Clynes said her niece might never have swallowed that oven cleaner, if Bellwether staff had been better qualified.
“She will never swallow again. She will never drink again. She will never eat again now that this has happened.”
Shortly after Bellwether lost its license to operate in New Jersey, Wellspring Capital took the group home company into receivership, a corporate maneuver similar to bankruptcy. All lawsuits against Bellwether, including Gregorio’s, are now on hold. Former Bellwether clients and facilities are being handed off to other group home providers.