Assemblymen Hal Wirths and Parker Space announced Monday that they are actively pursuing committee action on their legislation to ensure the constant monitoring and supervision of children who are placed in child-psychiatric facilities.
The legislation (A3958) was introduced at the request of a Sussex County parent who wishes to remain anonymous at this time. In 2015, she was the long-time foster parent to a 7-year-old boy who was placed in a child psychiatric ward of a prominent New Jersey hospital. To her horror, when he returned home after a five-day stay, he reported that he had been repeatedly sexually molested by his 9-year-old male roommate, the Assemblymen said.
“This is a parent’s worst nightmare,” said Wirths (R-Sussex, Warren, Morris). “What this family has had to endure is horrendous. We urgently need to address these facilities’ inadequate supervision policies through legislation by requiring them to properly supervise and protect children who are in their care due to psychiatric crises.”
New Jersey currently does not have a standard law or regulation providing for round-the-clock monitoring of children in these facilities. This is why the constituent went to her legislators for help, Wirths and Space said.
“The psychiatric ward’s staff didn’t even follow the hospital’s own policy of checking on the children every 15 minutes,” the constituent said. “This meant our son was alone for several significant periods of time with the older child. However, even 15 minutes is far too long for two children experiencing mental-health crises to be alone with one another. It’s not unreasonable to assume that there are many more children that we don’t even know about who have been molested or otherwise injured during unsupervised time in these facilities. I believe it’s likely to be happening right now, in fact.”
In response to the family’s experience, legislation was introduced to require every children’s psychiatric facility in New Jersey to supervise each child 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (except for when a child is using the bathroom, bathing, or changing his/her clothes, during which time he/she must be unaccompanied by any other children).
“It is purely common sense for the vulnerable children who are placed in these facilities to have round-the-clock monitoring. Constant supervision is integral to preventing child-on-child assaults in these high-risk settings,” explained Space (R-Sussex, Warren, Morris), a cosponsor of the legislation.
Wirths and Space have been advocating for their legislation to receive a hearing by the Assembly Human Services Committee. They have also been working with the constituent and her family and the Assembly Speaker’s office on amendments to strengthen the bill. However, the bill has not yet been placed on a committee agenda, so the Assemblymen are hoping to raise the bill’s visibility and thus garner interest in supporting the bill when the legislature reconvenes.
“I understand that, sometimes, beyond anyone’s control, policy change happens very slowly,” Wirths said. “However, the family first approached the District 24 office in 2016 and, since that time, we have been going through various channels to try to get these regulations changed. At this point, the family has been waiting for far too long. More children are put at risk every day that this legislation remains at a standstill. I appreciate the Speaker’s office taking a role in this process, but we cannot wait any longer. We need to address this dangerous lack of supervision immediately.”
Senator Steve Oroho (R-Sussex, Warren, Morris) introduced companion legislation in the Senate (S-2699). It was referred to the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. Senator Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer, Middlesex) is also a prime sponsor.
“I am grateful to Assemblymen Wirths and Space as well as Senator Oroho for the work they and their teams have done to get this legislation introduced. Until a law is in place that protects these vulnerable children, I will continue to work alongside our legislators in our efforts to ensure there is 24/7 supervision of every child in every psychiatric facility in the state. I consider it my job to ensure that every lawmaker in New Jersey hears from me and other parents in support of A-3958 and S-2699,” said the constituent. “The patients in these facilities are among New Jersey’s most vulnerable children, and they need and deserve our constant protection. Anything less is absolutely, completely unacceptable.”