Linden teen helps new foster care law get passed

LINDEN, NJ — Deanna Lescouflair, a senior from Linden High School, helped write and advocate for the passage of legislation recently signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy to protect sibling relationships for children and teens in New Jersey’s child welfare system.

The “Siblings’ Bill of Rights,” signed into law in January, codifies the rights of foster youth to remain actively involved in the lives of their siblings and, where appropriate, to have their voice heard in the permanency planning process for their siblings.

To hear the perspectives of young people who have been involved in the state’s foster care system and to gather their feedback on ways in which it could be improved, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families created a Youth Council in 2020 as part of DCF’s Office of Family Voice. Lescouflair is one of about 20 young people who participate in the Youth Council.

She and her fellow members developed the draft of the Siblings’ Bill of Rights, met with key legislative leaders and created a video to advocate for the bill’s passage.

“Being separated from my sister was one of the hardest things that’s happened while being in the child welfare system,” Lescouflair said. “Once she left, I didn’t have contact with her for four months before I was able to have visits with her. This is a recurring issue that many youth face in the child welfare system. Being a member of the DCF Youth Council and pushing for this bill, I was able to help other kids that may be experiencing these same issues.”

Specifically, the bill affords the following provisions for youth in foster care:

• to have access to phone calls and virtual visits in between face-to-face visits with their siblings; and

• 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; and

• youth in placement will have the following 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.

“The bill is important to me because it helps me stay in contact with my siblings,” Lescouflair said. “This new law ensures communication between siblings, which is very important for kids who are separated.”

“Lescouflair and her young colleagues led the movement every step of the way, from developing legislative language, securing the sponsorship of legislators, advocating for the bill and celebrating its successful passage,” said DCF Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer.

According to the Department of Children and Families, approximately 54 percent 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,” Beyer said. “I am so very, very proud of our Youth Council members who worked tirelessly to move this initiative forward.”

Murphy applauded the young change-makers as well: “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. 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.”

Outside of advocating for the bill, Youth Council members have also worked to help their peers throughout the state in other ways. They redesigned a youth-centered website, assisted in creating scripts for two mental health public service announcements and issued and awarded a request for proposal — a government solicitation for professional services — for a peer mentorship program.

“In support of other youth entering foster care, the Youth Council also created the EnlightenMENT Peer 2 Peer mentoring program to provide resources and to be an outlet for adolescents that are currently in care,” said Lescouflair. “The mentors have lived experience in care, which helps the youth to feel heard and to essentially have a big brother or sister to look out for them.”

Lescouflair is eyeing a career in biotechnology, as she maintains a part-time job and keeps up with her academics. However, she said the lessons she learned while pushing to pass major state legislation will stay with her.

“Being a part of the legislative process has given me the hands-on learning experience about the life cycle of a bill — from coming up with the idea and drafting the language to advocating for it and finally, anxiously awaiting the passing of the bill in the legislature before making its way to the Governor’s desk for his signature,” she said. “While it was a lot of hard work and dedication, my fellow Youth Council members and I were very excited to be a part of the process and create change in New Jersey’s child welfare system.”