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P.F. on Behalf of B.F. v. New Jersey Div. of Developmental Disabilities

April 10, 1995


On certification to Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The Opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J. Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Stein join in this opinion. Justice Coleman did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollock

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

P.F. and B.F., on behalf of their son, B.F. v. New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities (A-52-94)

Argued November 29, 1994 -- Decided April 10, 1995

POLLOCK, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

B.F. is a severely autistic young man who cannot communicate verbally. Among other problems, he has a history of violent tantrums and an inability to adapt to change. Because of B.F.'s special needs, his parents cannot care for him at home.

In 1987, the Mountain Lakes School District placed B.F. at the New England Center of Autism (NECA). This is a "community-based" residential facility for people with autism. NECA personnel have successfully taught B.F. many basic self-care skills, such as grocery shopping, banking, planning and preparing meals, and household chores. Significantly, B.F. can work under supervision. He has held part-time jobs at a fast-food restaurant and a bottled drinking-water company.

In 1990, the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) began monitoring B.F.'s progress at NECA. For three years, NECA personnel prepared an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), which discussed B.F.'s progress and recommended a course of treatment. Each year, the IEP recommended placing B.F. in a highly structured program when he reached twenty-one. Each year, DDD concurred in the IEP's findings and Conclusions.

In August 1992, DDD prepared an Individualized Habilitation Plan (IHP) for B.F. An IHP, which is similar to an IEP, recommends a course of treatment for a DDD client. The 1992 IHP adopted NECA's IEP, which emphasized that to prevent regression, B.F.'s transition must provide for a continuous program.

In February 1993, a psychologist recommended to DDD that B.F. should remain at NECA. His report expressed concern about the lack of comparable facilities in New Jersey.

At the close of the 1992-1993 school year, DDD assumed responsibility for B.F.'s placement. In so doing, DDD informed the parents that B.F. was to be transferred to a small residential unit at North Princeton Developmental Center. B.F.'s parents objected and ultimately sought a hearing before the Office of Administrative Law (OAL).

The Chief Judge of the OAL, Jaynee LaVecchia, found that the "overwhelming expert testimony" led to the Conclusion that a transfer to the North Princeton facility would cause a regression in B.F.'s self-care skills. That, in turn, would affect B.F.'s socialization and community involvement. She also concluded that DDD had decided on B.F.'s placement primarily for financial reasons, noting that the placement decision was made before B.F. was evaluated.

Focusing on financial concerns, the Director of DDD rejected Chief Judge LaVecchia's decision. He concluded that the law placed no limitations on the DDD that would require it to provide a specific level of service or to design a placement that would prevent a loss of basic care skills.

The Appellate Division affirmed the Director's decision. The Supreme Court granted the parents' petition for certification.

HELD: The Division of Developmental Disabilities has not sustained its burden of proving that the proposed transfer of an autistic twenty-one-year-old man from an out-of-state institution to a New Jersey institution is appropriate.

1. The record does not support the Director's Conclusion that the North Princeton facility is an appropriate "alternate service" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 30:4-25.6.(pp. 8-9)

2. Although courts typically defer to statutory interpretations by administrative agencies, such deference is inappropriate when, as here, the agency interpretation clearly ...

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