Hillsborough teen played key role in legislation protecting foster children's rights
HILLSBOROUGH - Seventeen-year-old high school senior Jack Auzinger has played an active role in the drafting and lobbying legislation recently signed into law to protect sibling relationships for children and teens in New Jersey’s child welfare system.
Auzinger, a Hunterdon County Polytech student, is a member of the state's Department of Children and Families Youth Council which was created in 2020 to integrate the youths’ lived experience and feedback into the foster care system.
Governor Phil Murphy signed the “Sibling Bill of Rights” law earlier this month to protect the right of foster youth to remain involved in the lives of their siblings, and, when appropriate, to have their input in the permanency planning process for their siblings.
“I have two sisters, one older and one younger, so when I was offered the opportunity to make changes in the system for siblings across New Jersey through the Youth Council, I jumped onto it,” Auzinger said. “The Sibling Bill of Rights means a lot to me because it really sets in stone that your relationships with your siblings are meaningful and nobody can take that from you.”
According to the Department of Children and Families (DCF), about 54% of children who are placed outside of their home have at least one sibling. The bill affects those 1,638 children.
"This bill represents the power of shared leadership and the importance of having individuals with lived experiences in a meaningful role at the table,” DCF Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer said. “I am so very, very proud of our Youth Council members who worked tirelessly to move this initiative forward.”
Murphy also applauded the Youth Council members.
“I was deeply moved, as I’m sure my counterparts in the Legislature were, by the compelling recommendations of the Youth Council who shared their lived experiences of their time during the child welfare process," the governor said. "In what could very well be the most difficult time of their young lives, it is our hope that this bill will allow siblings in the child welfare system to maintain some measure of stability and continuity.”
Auzinger and his fellow Council members participated in the drafting and passage of the law from the beginning. They developed the legislative language, secured sponsors of the bill, lobbied for it, and celebrated its passage, Beyer said.
More:Central Jersey Girl Scout leader brings empowerment, sisterhood to Saudi Arabia
“With this bill, New Jersey has taken a stance on sibling rights and moved to end sibling separation in the foster system,” Auzinger said. “Youth affected in the foster care system experience situations incomparable to what the vast majority of people go through in childhood, and we have a moral imperative to support them in any way we can.”
The bill has these provisions for youth in foster care:
To have access to phone calls and virtual visits between face-to-face visits with their sibling.
To be placed in the closest proximity possible to other siblings who are not in out-of-home placement.
If placement together is not possible, when it is in the best interests of the child.
The recommendations and wishes of each sibling who participates in the permanency planning decision will be documented in their case records and provided to the court.
DCF workers will communicate expectations for continued contact with the child’s siblings after adoption or transfer of custody (subject to the approval of the adoptive parents or caregiver).
Youth in placement will have these rights: To be promptly informed about changes in sibling placements or permanency goals; to be actively involved in the lives of their siblings, including birthdays, holidays, and other milestones; to not be denied sibling visits as a result of behavioral consequences when residing in a resource family home or congregate care setting; and to be provided updated contact information for all siblings at least annually (unless not in the best interests of one or more siblings).
Auzinger is considering a career in cybersecurity. But the lessons he learned during the legislative process will stay with him.
Needy Cases 2022:CASA of Middlesex County shines its light on foster children
“When I joined the Youth Council, I was 14 years old and knew next to nothing about the legislative process,” he said. “I learned how a bill starts off, the massive number of revisions, how bills are sponsored and the advocacy it takes to get them passed. Throughout all of this I saw what youth can do when empowered to make real effective change.”
Mike Deak is a reporter for mycentraljersey.com. To get unlimited access to his articles on Somerset and Hunterdon counties, please subscribe or activate your digital account.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Hillsborough teen played role in protecting foster children's rights