FREEHOLD, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Parents and advocates are calling on the state to fully open New Jersey’s day programs for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They have been closed for more than a year, causing many individuals to regress.

Ellen “Cookie” Zalenko says her 35-year-old son, John, has autism. He attended the New Horizons program for those with special needs for 21 years. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, upsetting his much-needed daily routine.

“He used to do so many things. Now, he is just totally regressing,” Zalenko told CBS2’s Meg Baker on Thursday.

Dauna Demarsico-Jendrek, whose cousin attends a day program, started a petition.

“To get those programs open and to get awareness out there for the lack of equity and equality for adults and children with disabilities,” Demarsico-Jendrek said.

READ MOREExclusive: Families Of Adults With Developmental Disabilities Desperate To Save North Jersey Agency

The Department of Human Services announced Thursday these programs can open 50% if the COVID-19 activity level index — or CALI report — is high or moderate, which it currently is.

Parents say that capacity limit will only allow those from group homes to attend, and Pam Kowitski’s son, Steven, gets frustrated being stuck at home on Zoom.

“These are essential therapeutics and they are being denied,” said Kowitski, of Edison.


Baker asked Gov. Phil Murphy why these programs are closed when schools in the same areas are open.

“Those individuals want to know why you can’t fully reopen. They have been struggling for more than a year now,” Baker said.

“We balance physical health with mental health. It is a step in the right direction,” Murphy said.

READ MOREFamilies Of New Yorkers With Developmental Disabilities Ask State To Pull Back On Some COVID-19 Guidelines

Elizabeth Dicker has autism and teaches pre-vocational skills and explained why they are so important.

“Your day program is kind of like your work. That’s your life and where you are learning things. So imagine if someone took away college and your job at the same time. And then also you can’t drive and you don’t have a lot of friends or other activities and then you’re stuck in the house. And, yeah, everyone is regressing,” Dicker said.

She said her students are confused and want to go back.

Advocates are planning a protest in Freehold on Saturday, asking the governor to fully reopen these essential programs. Murphy is expected to announce the lifting of other restrictions in the state next week.

CBS2’s Meg Baker contributed to this report

CBSNewYork Team