By Gina Macris
Jennifer L. Wood, largely responsible for accelerating Rhode Island’s lackluster response to a federal consent decree affecting adults with developmental disabilities, is leaving state government to become director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice.
The non-profit public interest law center works with community groups and the Roger Williams University School of Law to strengthen legal services and advocacy on issues that reflect the most pressing needs of low-income Rhode Islanders, including housing, immigration, and workers’ rights.
Miriam Weizenbaum, the board chair for the Center for Justice, announced the appointment Wednesday, May 3, saying that Wood’s legal background in public interest law, combined with her extensive experience in education and health and human servicesin state government, “makes her an ideal leader for the Center for Justice at a time when basic rights are under significant challenge.”
Wood was deputy secretary and chief legal counsel to Elizabeth Roberts until Roberts resigned in mid-February as head of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services amid fallout from the UHIP fiasco, the botched roll-out of a computerized Medicaid benefits system. Thousands of Rhode Islanders were left without a wide range of benefits, including from food stamps, health coverage, subsidized child care, and even developmental disability services. At the time Roberts left, Wood was demoted to general counsel.
AshleyG. O’Shea, spokeswoman for OHHS, noted in a statement that Wood has devoted two decades of her life to state service and said, “We wish her the best in her new endeavor.”
In March, the office of the U.S. Attorney in Providence issued a demand for UHIP documents, saying it is investigating the “allegation that false claims and/or payment for services and/or false statements in support of such payments have been submitted to the U.S. government.“
In a statement May 3, Wood indicated that since the November election, she has been considering a change in career to go back to her roots. As a lawyer in the private sector, her work emphasized civil rights and disability rights. She represented inmates at the Rhode Island Training School and special education students, among others who otherwise might have lacked a legal voice.
Wood joined state government in 1998 as chief of staff at the Rhode Island Department of Education, leaving in 2007 to work as Roberts’ second-in-command after the latter was elected Lieutenant Governor. When Governor Gina Raimondo appointed Roberts as Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2015, Wood followed as deputy secretary and chief legal counsel.
At the end of 2015, when U.S. District Court Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. signaled that he would personally oversee enforcement of the consent decree affecting daytime services for adults with developmental disabilities, Wood took charge of moving the implementation forward.
At that point, the agreement had brought virtually no change to the lives of adults with developmental disabilities since it was signed in April, 2014. By all accounts, Wood moved the implementation into high gear.
O’Shea, the OHHS spokeswoman, said Wood is turning over her responsibilities in developmental disabilities to other officials, including Dianne Curran, a lawyer who is consent decree coordinator, and Kerri Zanchi, the new director of developmental disabilities. They are in touch with the federal court monitor and the U.S. Department of Justice weekly, according to O’Shea.
The consent decree requires the state replace sheltered workshops and segregated day programs with community-based supports so that adults with developmental disabilities may seek regular jobs and enjoy non-work activities in a more integrated way. The desegregation of services for everyone with disabilities was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Olmstead decision of 1999, which re-affirmed Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act.