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Relatives of developmentally disabled fault group home operator over slow pace of reopening

Family members spoke to Newsday on Thursday about their concerns with COVID-19 restrictions that impact their ability to visit family members who are residents in group homes for those with developmental disabilities. Credit: Jeff Bachner; Tom Hopkins

As nursing homes and group homes have begun resuming visits, a nonprofit running more than a dozen residential programs for the developmentally disabled is at odds with relatives who disagree with its decision to slowly reopen and prohibit home visits in favor of what its operators say is assuring residents’ safety.

Some family members said the onus is on East Meadow-based EPIC Long Island, which operates 18 group homes in Nassau and Suffolk counties, to develop plans to safely reopen and address the mental well-being of a vulnerable group that has been in isolation for months.

“They’ve had four months to work on it,” said Liz McArdle, of Glenwood Landing, whose 26-year-old autistic son lives in an EPIC home in Levittown. “I want the agency to follow the guidelines and let them have all the same freedoms that all the other group homes [offer].”

In a letter sent to families Wednesday, EPIC — which has about 130 residents in its homes — said families can see residents with some limitations, such as visits of no more than an hour, and no more than two relatives allowed. They can also take residents out to restaurants for takeout.

EPIC has seen seven deaths and about 24 positive COVID-19 cases among residents, but it is not the only group home operator adopting a relatively slow approach to reopening, said Tom Hopkins, EPIC’s president and CEO.

“I feel very much the responsibility of each of these [men and women] in our group homes,” Hopkins said. “And I would hate to open up too quickly and put people in jeopardy. I’d rather be a little bit too slow than a little bit too fast.”

The guidelines from the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities took effect July 15. They include requirements for family visits offsite but left reopening decisions to the discretion of each care facility.

“For some parents, it isn’t fair,” said Suzanne Reek, executive director of the Nassau Suffolk Chapter of the Autism Society of America, who said she took her son home on July 15 for a visit from  his Brookville Center for Children’s Services group home in Lido Beach. “Some of them are a little slower. ... I think all these agencies should work together on a plan.”

Michelle Glover-Brown, whose 55-year-old sibling lives in an EPIC home in Freeport, said she’s worried about her autistic brother's emotional wellbeing, given the impact of a break in his normal routine and prolonged isolation. 

“I want to be able to pick up my brother and take him home [for a weekend visit] and allow him to have the same freedoms I have,” said Glover-Brown, of Medford. 

Officials at EPIC said they conduct weekly reviews and are following an approach similar to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s phased reopenings.

“We are doing it in a way that, I think, is smart, that follows [state guidelines] and some commonsense [guidelines],” said Jeffrey Nagel, chairman of EPIC’s board of directors. “I feel bad if there are parents who felt it was too restrictive. But ultimately it’s a relatively short-term issue … for a long-term good.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the group home of Suzanne Reek’s son. He lives in a group home in Lido Beach operated by the Brookville Center for Children’s Services.

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