Asbury Park Press

DATE: 2007/03/02 Section: NEWS

High court clears way for more assistance


A state Supreme Court ruling could make it easier for adults with developmental disabilities to obtain state assistance.

The 6-0 decision, handed down Thursday, ruled the state Division of Developmental Disabilities imposed overly restrictive rules for deciding who is eligible for state support, such as housing assistance, therapy and transportation.

The case centered on regulations that require a developmentally disabled person to exhibit “substantial limitations” before the age of 22. The court sided with a family fighting those rules. The decision means a person with a disability from a young age can still be eligible for state assistance even if the limitations take hold later in life. The disability, however, must still be present before the applicant turns 22.

The court also ruled that more weight should be given to families’ testimony in determining the severity and history of a person’s disability.

“The decision now places families at the center of discussion with respect to knowledge and history and needs of individuals with disabilities,” said Paul Prior, the attorney who argued the case for a 55-year-old man with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism.

Prior represented a man identified in court papers as T.H. who, according to his sister, showed symptoms of Asperger’s as early as age 6, but was cared for by family. When T.H.’s parents died, the family could not afford the care and sought state assistance.

The division, however, denied aid, saying there was no concrete evidence of severe and chronic impairments before T.H. turned 22. The state considered the sister’s testimony anecdotal and said a suicide attempt by T.H. further complicated the diagnosis. The court, however, said more weight should be given to family accounts.

“We can think of no more relevant probative evidence than testimony of relatives who lived with T.H. and his problems — year in and year out — over a lifetime. To rule otherwise would be to punish families that choose to care for their disabled children in lieu of placing them in a facility,” Associate Justice Virginia Long wrote for the court.

Department of Human Services spokeswoman Pam Ronan said the division is reviewing the decision and will be proposing changes to its rules in roughly a week.