After man was found dead in closet, a push in NJ for cameras in group homes
TRENTON – A plan to allow video cameras to be installed around group homes has stalled in the Legislature, though its advocates continue pushing for its revival.
The bill, S1897/A2483, cites the 2017 death of 33-year-old Billy Cray, who was found face down on a bloody pillow in the closet of his bedroom at the at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health of New Jersey in Somers Point.
An autopsy concluded Cray died of natural causes, but his mother, Martha, said a detective agreed it was suspicious and that her son had been abused regularly in his 25 years living in five group homes around the state. It has been nearly five years since his death, which she says would be less mysterious – or perhaps have been prevented through deterrence – if there was a camera in his room.
“I’m not going to let my son die in vain and anybody else’s child,” said Cray, a former Roselle Park resident now living in Toms River. “Because this bill is not about my son’s death. It’s in his memory, but it’s to save the lives of others.”
The bill would require video cameras to be installed in common areas of group homes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are 21 and older, if all the residents agree to them. Common areas include entrances, stairwells, dining areas and outdoor areas.
“This is a choice. Choice of cameras. If you don’t want the camera in your room and you don’t want the camera faced at you in the common areas, you don’t have to,” Cray said. “There’s no sound. And it’s a choice. It’s not mandatory.”
Residents could also request a video camera in their bedrooms, which would be paid for by the family.
“It protects everybody from the person with disabilities, special needs to caregivers, agencies,” said Aileen Rivera of Wayne, an activist since her son was beaten in 2010 at the state’s North Jersey Developmental Center. “It protects everyone because cameras don’t lie.”
“If the staff are doing their job, they shouldn’t be afraid to have cameras on them,” Cray said.
Not everyone agrees
The legislation is now more than two years old and has bipartisan sponsorship.
It got through two Assembly committees last session but then stalled without a vote by the full Assembly. This session, the bill hasn’t budged in either the Senate or Assembly.
The bill has opponents, including the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities and Disability Rights New Jersey, who say it would infringe on an individual’s privacy and rights.
Rivera said wherever people go these days there are cameras, even walking down a street past houses with Ring doorbells or shopping in a store.
“We live in a day and age where there’s cameras all over the place,” Rivera said. “It’s like the new norm, and it’s to protect everybody, really."
The bill isn’t scheduled for any hearings in the next 10 days, after which the Legislature is likely to begin its summer recess and mostly not conduct business until after Labor Day.
But Rivera and Cray hope a pressure campaign can get lawmakers to schedule a hearing and vote.
“We’re not going to go away,” Rivera said. “I mean, we’re living proof that we will fight to the end to protect this population. We did it with the Steven Komninos Law. It was a seven-year uphill battle. We’re not going to stop on this one, either. We’re just going to continue.”