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Tara’s Law Introduced to Protect New Jersey’s Most Vulnerable Citizens

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The 12th District legislators unveiled Tara’s Law at a press conference yesterday at their district office. The creation of Tara’s Law (A-4144/S-2983) was inspired by the neglect and subsequent death of Tara O’Leary, a developmentally disabled woman who was mistreated at the sponsor home where she was staying.

On September 11, 2008 Tara was removed from her sponsor home and placed into the Hunterdon ARC group home. Ten days later, Tara woke up extremely ill and was taken to Hunterdon Medical Center where she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit.

Tara’s family struggled for two months to become Tara’s guardian. On November 6, 2008 with help from Senator Jennifer Beck, Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon and Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, Tara’s family received permanent guardianship. However, by then it was too late to save Tara, who passed away at the age of 29, weighing only 43 pounds.

“The circumstances surrounding the death of Tara O’Leary are horrific,” said Beck, “and something that should never have been permitted to take place. We need the government to protect its most vulnerable citizens, and that’s what this bill is all about.”

Tara’s Law seeks to protect developmentally disabled individuals who are placed in community care residences from physical, verbal, and psychological abuse as well as neglect, exploitation, and abandonment by requiring that case managers provide written reports of their monthly visit with the developmentally disabled individual. If a person has reasonable cause to believe the developmentally disabled individual is being abused, neglected, exploited, or abandoned they are to report this immediately to the Department of Human Services. If a person fails to report this abuse they may face six months of imprisonment and or a $1,000 fine.

The Commissioner of Human Services is to designate staff to review these reports and initiate appropriate responses. The commissioner will also provide for an investigation of the reported incident as well as prohibit those on the offender registry from employment or participation in programs of the Division of Developmental Disabilities in the Department of Human Services. The law also requires the Department of Human Services to create a Registry for Offending Community Care Residence Providers.

“It’s appalling that something like this has happened right in our own backyard,” said Casagrande. “This bill is a stepping-stone to make sure it never happens again. Tara’s family worked so hard for so long to gain custody, to get her to a place where she would be cared for by her family who loved her. It’s so distressing to know that it was too late for Tara. If we can see this bill signed into law, it will not be too late for someone else.”

“When I first heard of the situation of the family, working to gain custody of Tara, I was extremely moved,” said O’Scanlon. “When Tara died just days after custody had been handed over, that was a crushing blow. With our most defenseless citizens, we must have laws to provide their defense. It is a great misfortune that the requirement for reports was not in place to protect Tara from those people who failed her so tremendously.”

This law was created using aspects of existing state laws throughout the country, especially those in California and Ohio, and the Legislators believe it to be a great first step in stemming abuse against the developmentally disabled in New Jersey.

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