A new law signed last week in New Jersey recognizes the right of youth in foster care to remain connected with their biological siblings and continue to be actively involved in their lives.
The law, which took effect immediately, will also allow for siblings to be involved in each others’ permanency planning decisions when appropriate.
Youth with lived experience played a big role in the law’s passage. Two dozen teens and young adults formed a Youth Council that, over the last two years, worked with the Department of Children and Family Services to identify priority areas for reform. Protecting sibling relationships topped the list.
The Youth Council, which is part of the Office of Family Voice launched in 2018 to make child welfare policy more responsive and family-centered, put together a video for the Legislature explaining the need for the Sibling Bill of Rights.
“It bridges the gap between what the courts may define as permanency and what permanency truly is,” a council member named Tawanna said in the video.
Jack, another council member, focused on the importance of siblings being able to advocate for each other: “Instead of being separated, they will be supported by each other,” said Jack.
Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who signed the bill last week, said he was moved to hear the youths’ firsthand perspective.
“One of this Administration’s goals has been to make sure the children and families in this state’s welfare systems are treated with compassion and empathy,” Murphy said in a press release.
The bill requires placing siblings together when possible and in their best interest, including congregate care placements; or if they can’t be placed together, being placed in as close proximity as possible. It prohibits caregivers from withholding visits or contact with siblings as a form of punishment.
Facilitating in-person visits as well as phone and video calls will now be mandatory, and siblings will have the right to spend holidays, birthdays and other milestones together.
Research has found that siblings being placed together is linked to higher rates of reunification adoption and guardianship. It’s also shown to improve children’s performance in school and their overall mental health.
Siblings placed together also tend to have better relationships with foster caregivers and an easier time adjusting to a new home, in part because they aren’t worrying about how their separated siblings are doing.
A handful of other states have enshrined similar protections. A similar set of rights was signed into law in Colorado in 2019. Connecticut’s law sets forth siblings’ right to live together and other rights “absent extraordinary circumstances.” Minnesota, Massachusetts, Oregon, Nevada, Rhode Island and others have similar protections in place.