The Dutchess County executive says it is time to restore visitation at residential group homes as New York recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. He is calling on state officials to issue guidance to allow family members of individuals with developmental disabilities to resume visits after nearly three months.
The New York state Office of People with Developmental Disabilities issued revised guidance April 28, suspending visitation with few exceptions. Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro says it’s been too long since the OPWDD has communicated and issued updated guidance.
“And we believe now, and our public health department support, that a structured visitation allowing families to interact with loved ones in OPWDD-regulated facilities is appropriate,” Molinaro says. “And we are well past time that OPWDD should have responded to families, should have responded to government leaders and should have developed protocols. And, I will say, it is shameful that it has not happened to date.”
Molinaro wrote a June 5 letter to the OPWDD commissioner asking that his office restore visitation while keeping residents and staff safe.
“So we’re asking the governor, and we’re asking OPWDD, to create those guidances, create those protocols, and allow the doors to start to open again,” says Molinaro.
An OPWDD spokesperson, in an emailed statement, says the office is working with the state Department of Health to develop a process and timeline to safely resume visitation and hopes to announce new guidelines soon. Patrick Paul is CEO and executive director of the Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg in Dutchess County, just south of Rhinebeck.
“Many of the children and adults that we serve are, cannot really communicate well. They’re nonverbal and they’re not really understanding what’s going on,” Paul says. So I think the families are very concerned that the children, their family members, may feel abandoned, even though we have extensive electronic systems that are out there, all the ways to communicate electronically. It’s still just not going to be the same.”
The OPWDD statement also says, “We understand the frustration and concern from families at not being able to visit or provide in-person comfort to their children who are currently living in a group home. To ensure the continued health and safety of the people we support in group homes and the staff who support them, we temporarily suspended home visits and visitation at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, however we have encouraged providers of housing services to continue to engage families through the use of window visits, online video chats and phone calls.” Again, Molinaro:
“Simply creating a blanket approach of locking down and locking out individual humans that have absolute right to interact with others in a safe way is negligent, it is uncaring and, at this point, it verges on criminal,” Molinaro says. “And so, really, it is time for New York state to take this seriously and to make sure that this population, these individuals are on the front of our minds, not secondary to decision-making.”
The Anderson Center’s Paul sees both sides of the issue — the need to maintain a safe environment and not risk COVID-19 infection and allow family members to visit their loved ones.
“And I think that OPWDD and the governor’s office is formulating, as we speak, a plan that does both,” says Paul. “And I think the reason why it’s taking so long is because it’s a really difficult decision to make, and so, so they’re being very careful and they’re being very methodical and when they come up with the guidance, I’m sure it will change moving forward.”
Change, he says, because of the unknowns about COVID-19; for example, whether there will be a resurgence in cases as reopening in the state continues.