Parents brace for even longer separation from children living in residential facility

SOUTHBOROUGH, Mass. — Nearly 11,000 people with developmental disabilities, including children, live in residential facilities and group homes in Massachusetts. The facilities are considered “essential services” and remain open during the public health emergency, but not to visitors.

In March, group homes across the state stopped allowing family visits to try to protect this especially vulnerable group from the spread of the coronavirus.

Melissa and Chris Beck have not touched, hugged, or kissed their 15-year-old son Owen, since March 7. They aren’t allowed to visit him at his residence run by the Southborough-based New England Center for Children, and he can’t go home to his parents’ home in Stowe. Their only way to see him is through Skype.

"At first it was torture, yes," said Owen's mom, Melissa, "but seeing how well Owen is doing, during this time because of the continued structure -- we feel so much calmer."

“We’ve seen so many scary stories out there about long-term care facilities and places like that,” said Chris, Owen’s father. ”We really do think the administration at the New England Center for Children has this under control as best as they can,”.

Owen has autism and is non-verbal. Like many of the other children he lives with, his frustration can lead to him hurting himself or aggression towards others, so he has been deemed safest in a residential placement. And individuals with autism often have complex medical needs and may have compromised immune systems.

Vincent Strully, the CEO and founder of NECC, says the decision to institute a lockdown when the pandemic hit was out of necessity. “If the kids were going back and forth, we couldn’t guarantee that this wouldn’t spread everywhere in the residential program rapidly,” explained Strully. NECC runs residential programs throughout the Metrowest area.

Front-line staff at NECC are getting hazard pay. Some volunteered to work in the residential placements when their day and home-based programs were halted because of the outbreak. Around 1,000 staff, from janitors to overnight supervisors, are keeping the facilities open. More than 100 of them are living in single rooms in extended-stay hotels and have been self-isolating in an effort to protect both their families and the students they work with. Staff member’s temperatures are taken before they start their shift.

Still, three residents tested positive for COVID-19. But they aren’t going home. Instead, they’re being isolated with staff-turned-first responders. Strully said that with support from the state, NECC was able to test everyone in the building where the residents tested positive. They traced the cases back to a staff member who did not have symptoms but who had the virus. Strully says it’s just another example of “how incredibly virulent” this virus is.

Parents like Melissa and Chris Beck have been told they won’t be able to reunite with their children until at least the end of June. Next week is Owen’s 16th birthday, and his parents won’t be allowed to celebrate with him.

"We don’t even want to knock on the window and wave because that might confuse him so [the staff] said ‘well we’ll Skype and you can sing happy birthday to him,’ " said Melissa.

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