Tyler Loftus has been sitting in New Jersey's Hunterdon County Jail since September 18. "Every day he calls and says, 'Mom, come get me, I don't want to stay here,'" his mother, Rita O'Grady, told me. Diagnosed with autism and intellectual disability, Tyler has the cognitive capacity of a 5-year-old. He can't understand why he's not allowed to leave.
Loftus, 23, was picked up by a police officer just past midnight after running away from his group home – an almost daily occurrence. Tyler hated the home. The other residents were much older; they taunted him, took his CDs and DVDs, broke his PlayStation, and accused him of stealing their cigarettes, even though he doesn't smoke.
"I never consented to this placement," O'Grady said. "I specifically withdrew consent, because I knew what would happen. But the Arc [the agency that operated the group home] moved him anyway."
O'Grady's fears were realized almost immediately. As soon as he was placed there on August 27, Tyler started a dangerous cycle which would begin with him running away. When he was caught and returned to the group home, he would get angry and aggressive with staff members, often threatening to kill them – patterns of behavior that had been a problem since 2001 and had contributed to the need for residential placement in the first place. Staff members would call 911, Loftus would be brought to the local ER for evaluation, then discharged back to the group home. This happened almost every day, sometimes more than once.
What was different about September 18? This time, Loftus was carrying a three-inch pocket knife he had taken with him because it was scary to walk the four miles to his mother's house in the dark. He was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon and making terroristic threats against one of his roommates. O'Grady wonders if the police officer wasn't just sick of chasing Tyler down every day.
"We were told by the police and the hospital that they're not Tyler's staff," she said.
But the prosecutor can't drop the charges because there is no place for Tyler to go. At his arraignment, the executive director of the Arc informed the judge that Loftus was officially evicted from all Arc residences. With two young sons at home, O'Grady simply cannot provide the 24-hour supervision and behavior management that Tyler requires. Finding an appropriate placement is the job of New Jersey's Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD); unfortunately, no one from that office bothered to show up to the arraignment.
The DDD did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Jail isn't as bad as you might think: Tyler is kept separated from the general population; the nurses give him little tasks to occupy his time; one guard brought Tyler a box of crayons for his coloring books.
"When I heard he was going to jail, I just started throwing up," O'Grady said. "But I'm so impressed with the jail's treatment of someone with autism and intellectual disability. They recognized it right away and responded so kindly. It could have been so much worse."
Still, all the players – the prosecutor, the public defender, the judge – seem to believe that Loftus doesn't belong in jail. And there are facilities that specialize in the treatment of individuals with developmental delay and dangerous behaviors: the Woods School in Pennsylvania, for instance, where Tyler lived from the ages of 15 to 21. Closer to home there are state-run developmental centers, such as the one in Hunterdon, where Tyler has previously been admitted.
But these are no longer options. Governor Chris Christie's Return Home New Jersey program has put a moratorium on all out-of-state placements, which are very expensive. One hundred fifty developmentally disabled individuals, including Loftus, have already been forced to move back to New Jersey, with hundreds of others scheduled to follow.
The problem, O'Grady explained, is that the community-based supports that Christie promised have not yet materialized. "There is one psychiatric hospital in the state that accepts people with autism and intellectual disability, and it always has a waiting list," she said.
And those developmental centers? "Christie is closing them," O'Grady told me. One closed last summer; another of the five remaining will be shuttered early in 2015. "And he's put a stop order on all new admissions. Ideally, Tyler would be at Hunterdon while a permanent placement is found, but they can't take him."
So Tyler sits in jail. O'Grady calls DDD constantly, and is assured by his case manager that she is working hard to find the right placement. But the bigger question remains: what will happen to all the future Tylers? The ones with similarly unmanageable behaviors whose desperate parents have even resorted, according to recent news reports, to locking them in basements or caging them in dog kennels? Behaviors like Loftus' are not uncommon in the autistic population: 40 percent are also intellectually disabled and more than 50 percent suffer from violent behaviors. Given the skyrocketing autism rate – 1 out of 68 American children are expected to develop the disorder – O'Grady considers programs that cut services in the name of saving money, like Return Home New Jersey, irresponsible.
Meanwhile, Tyler Loftus just wants to go home.