Investigation: Lakewood has 2% of NJ children, 14% of NJ sick child aid – Asbury Park Press

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LAKEWOOD – Nearly $5 million from a state charity fund for sick children has gone to township residents over the last five years, an Asbury Park Press investigation found — the same fund allegedly defrauded by a Lakewood couple as part of a wider welfare cheating scheme.

Of the 3,200 statewide applications for help made to the Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund over the last five years, a quarter came from Lakewood — resulting in 756 Lakewood grants, records obtained by the Press show. Paterson, the No. 2 city in grants, received just 26.

Lakewood has 2 percent of the state’s 17 and under population, but families in the township received 14 percent of the $35 million awarded by the CICRF program since 2012.

The findings come at a time when authorities are continuing to probe use of public assistance programs in Lakewood after a wave of arrests and charges against 26 parents in an alleged welfare fraud scheme that law enforcement officials say eclipsed $2 million.

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The fund is for families whose children have an illness or condition not fully covered by insurance or other government programs.

Some state officials and community leaders say the wide disparity in CICRF applications from Lakewood, compared to other towns in New Jersey, may be a case of higher demand for services in Lakewood — along with better awareness among Orthodox Jewish residents about the little-known fund.

APPLY FOR HELP: The Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund

To apply, go online to http://www.nj.gov/humanservices/cicrf/home/apply/ or call the Family Information Line at 1-800-335-FUND (3863) for information and an application.

Families from Newark and Jersey City, the state’s two largest cities, each with populations more than 2 times the size of Lakewood’s, submitted a combined 62 fund applications since 2012. Newark and Jersey City families received $627,000 in grants compared to Lakewood’s $4.9 million.

“Our community has become much better at reaching out for resources. This is one example of that,’’ said Rabbi Moshe Weisberg, a member of Lakewood’s Vaad, or Jewish council, which represents a large amount of the Orthodox Jewish community in public policy issues. The Orthodox population comprises more than half of the township’s estimated 100,000 population.

“In years’ past it was more of a cultural thing — and I understand other societies have it as well — when there was illness with a child, or there are special needs or a disability, and that child was somewhat hidden away and wasn’t spoken of. The public interaction with that child was minimized,’’ he said.

That has changed over the last two decades, Weisberg said.

“Now the first reaction a family has to getting the news about an afflicted child — after the shock — is, ‘What can I do about it? What resources are available? How can I help this child?’ ‘’ he said.

Program officials said the applications from Lakewood have the same rate of chronic medical conditions of childhood associated with reduced mobility — such as muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy — as found in other municipalities.

However, the Lakewood applications have higher instances of reimbursements for therapy treatment of speech and language disorders, lack of coordination, ataxia (the loss of full control of bodily movements) and hypotonia (also known as floppy baby syndrome, marked by reduced muscle tone and strength).

The recent welfare fraud scheme in Lakewood netted 26 arrests. Of those, two in the roundup have been accused of wrongfully collecting CICRF benefits: Tzvi Braun, 35, and wife Estee, 34, of Ridge Avenue. They are accused of taking $62,747 they weren’t entitled to in Medicaid, low-income heating assistance, and CICRF money between January 2009 and December 2013.


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Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, and Jeffrey Lamm, spokesman for the Office of the State Comptroller, said the fraud investigation by the two agencies is continuing. The FBI has also participated.

David Shafter, the state-appointed monitor of Lakewood schools, said he doesn’t doubt there’s a high need for help with household medical bills.

The past year the Lakewood school budget spent $33.8 million on 1,254 special needs students, not including out-of-district busing for 346 children of that group to private schools in Lakewood or surrounding towns.

“We have a high number of children who have special medical needs that arose from genetic disease. A lot of children in the Orthodox community have this,’’ Shafter said. “In some cases, it requires special environmental conditions. We also have a number of children who need one-on-one nurses.’’

According to the Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium, an awareness group, there are a number of genetic diseases for which persons of Jewish heritage (at least one grandparent) are more likely to be carriers of than the general population.

Data from the Census Bureau shows that half of the more than 43,000 children in Lakewood live in a home that receives public assistance.

Lakewood has more children living in married households receiving welfare than any other town in New Jersey. Newark has many more children in households that receive public assistance, but not in houses with married parents.

Orthodox leaders say that cultural pressures mean many young families rely on public assistance to make ends meet. Men and women are encouraged to marry young and start families, which often grow to several children. As they are starting families, many men study in yeshivas well into their 20s, often meaning families have a limited income.

Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the Lakewood office of Agudath Israel of America, a nonprofit that advocates for civil and religious rights in the Jewish community, said “children are the top priority. Everything is about education and taking care of our kids and making sure they have the resources to thrive and, when assistance is needed, making sure parents are educated on what’s available and make sure they know.’’

The Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund is collected from an annual assessment of $1.50 per employee levied on all workers who are subject to the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Law.

A total of 872 requests for help came from Lakewood during the review period, including applications that were denied. Paterson was second in applications with 40.

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New Jersey established the CICRF in 1988 as a first-in-the-nation financial assistance program for families whose children have an illness or condition not fully covered by insurance or other government programs, said Claudia Marchese, the program’s executive director.

Marchese said the definition of a catastrophic illness in the program is economic — measured in terms of the financial consequences of health care expenses have on a family — rather than on traditional diagnostic classifications or acuity of illness, she said.

“Sometimes all it takes for a child to suffer a broken arm for medical bills to pile up, and a family of low or moderate income could qualify for reimbursement,’’ Marchese said.

The highest award made to a Lakewood family was $94,200 in 2015, according to public records. The average award in the township was $6,507.

Statewide, the highest award in the past five years was $103,596 to a Toms River family in 2015 and the average award is $15,757.

Awards to eligible families serve as financial assistance for previously incurred medical expenses for a child that exceed 10 percent of the first $100,000 of income, plus 15 percent of any income in excess of $100,000.

For children from newborn to age 21, covered expenses include special ambulatory care, acute or specialized in- or out-patient hospital care, medical equipment, medically related home and vehicle modifications such as ramps or wheelchair lifts, home health care, and medical transportation.

Bob Jordan bjordan@gannettnj.com

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