I spoke with Liz Shea just before the holidays. For those of you who don’t know, she took over as Assistant Commissioner at the state Department of Human Services’ Division of Developmental Disabilities in September.

By her own admission she fell into the world of DD supports and services the way many careers unfold, through a combination of unplanned opportunity and an affinity for the subject matter. When first out of law school she got a job at Covenant House, a worldwide charity based in New York City whose primary mission is to provide living and growing opportunities for homeless youth. While there, Shea had the opportunity to work with young people with disabilities and the connection was made.

Her first work in the field, logically, was in education. That branched out into governmental affairs and further broadened into public policy advocacy for people of all ages with developmental and other disabilities. As many of you know she worked with the Arc of New Jersey and the state Public Advocate. Most recently she served as a close aide to Human Services Deputy Commissioner Dawn Apgar for two years. Apgar and her team had spent several years working to get DDD on track.

According to Shea and my own observations, that time was focused on getting the division proactively moving again.

“For many, many years we had not had any major reform within DDD. Things were stagnant. We are now moving to close two developmental centers and increase Medicaid participation – two key factors that are needed to improve and expand our programming for consumers.”

DHS and DDD have made those commitments. Shea says she sees her primary job as making those and other plans they have a reality. Putting that stuff  “on the ground” if you will.

The other things she talked about were expanding options for daily activities for people with developmental disabilities, bolstering and rejuvenating the family support movement, and generally reinvigorating a forward looking culture within and outside of the division.

Shea says making these plans a reality will keep her busy. Indeed it will.

Some early thoughts from this peanut gallery.

She says the decisions to close North Jersey and Woodbridge developmental centers are done deals. It went through the hearings. A legislative task force was formed and made that binding recommendation, signed off on by the Governor. So now it should be all set.

Well, pardon a little caution about getting too cocky with this but I’ve seen it before. Yogi comes to mind and his “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” witticism. The state and the advocacy community can’t take the eye off this ball. There are still powerful factions out there that would love to see a less progressive direction. And there are compelling stories out there from individuals, parents and employees whose lives will be significantly altered by the changes. I won’t dwell on the much more significant numbers that will be positively affected by it. My purpose here is to stress again that those who support moving New Jersey past the old institutions must help carry the ball over the finish line.

As Shea and her team move ahead with the increased reliance on Medicaid, they and the advocacy community need to continue to work to make that program more progressive as well. The federal Medicaid program for long term care is still heavily based in the institutional models. That’s not where  the heads of most of the people working there and working in the state implementing agencies are but it is still embedded in the law, left over through the practice of layering on additional exceptions to things rather than pulling things apart and putting them back together. That’ll never happen. So it’s up to Shea and company to continue to use creative solutions to some of those leftover, archaic regulations. According to Shea, that has been on their radar and will continue to be.  If efforts to bolster family support get the traction they need, those councils can keep an eye on that as well.

Finally, as DDD moves to expand day options for people with developmental disabilities, I would like to acknowledge the increasing emphasis on employment as part of that package. Through the work of the division and its stakeholders, on April 19, 2012, Governor Christie announced NJ as the 14th “Employment First” state in the nation, recognizing that employment is the preferred outcome for all citizens of the state. I encourage them to follow that up with the nuts and bolts.

All in all I think DHS Commissioner Jennifer Velez and Apgar have accomplished some big things for DD—the DC closure being a crown jewel for me. And the plans they have sound like a reasonable mix of vision and reality. Nothing kills reforms quicker than shooting too high, too fast.

Liz Shea has the vision. Most of us have seen that time and time again. And she has the work ethic needed for this kind of marathon. Think of her rushing around the State House. Making this real though is going to be a big, big job. She knows it. She reflected that in her humble recognition that she would have her hands full just making the kind of progress she wants to on the things already on the table.

A not insignificant part of that success is going to be dependent on people in the community, and who support those natural, community options we all want, stepping up, putting their turf protections behind, and helping on that crucial need to reform the “without” part of the DD system while Shea and company are working on the “within.”

Shea knows the changes that need to happen outside DDD. She was there. And she said they will be engaged in trying to move that culture along as well.

They’re going to need help though. And, according to Shea, would welcome it.

What do you think?

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Disability in Focus