(TRENTON) - An Assembly panel on Thursday released legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) to amend current law to make the best interest of a child, the primary factor in decisions rendered by government agencies on behalf of children in need.
"Currently, the best interest of a child is only one of several factors that state government agencies and courts of law must weigh when making decisions involving the welfare of children," said Vainieri Huttle. "However, this should always be the predominant factor and primary focus for these agencies. This bill would make it clear that above all else, the best interest of a child always comes first."
Under current law, when taking any action involving a child, state governmental agencies and courts of law must take into account the best interest of the child among many other factors. This bill (A-4856) mandates that in these instances, the best interests of the child be a primary consideration.
Specifically, the bill amends section 2 of P.L.1982, c.77 (C.2A:4A-21) to expand the purposes of the "New Jersey Code of Juvenile Justice" to include that in any action undertaken within the provisions of the code, ensuring the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration.
The bill also amends section 1 of P.L.1971, c.437 (C.9:6-8.8) (adjudication of allegations of child abuse and neglect) to clarify that in accordance with law, the best interests of the child would be a primary consideration when providing for the protection of children under 18. Currently, when providing protection to children under 18, the safety of children is of paramount concern. However, the statute does not specify that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration.
Further, the bill amends section 1 of P.L.1971, c.437 to specify that the best interests of the child would be a primary consideration when determining and making reasonable efforts to:
- prevent, if possible, the out-of-home placement of a child;
- safely return a child home after an out-of-home placement;
- place a child for adoption, with a legal guardian, or in an alternative permanent placement while concurrently planning to preserve and reunify the child's family; and
- to place the child in a timely manner and complete the necessary steps to finalize the permanent placement of the child, if family reunification is not possible.
"These decisions are often difficult ones to make," added Vainieri Huttle. "Knowing what to prioritize can ease the process and avoid creating more hardship for the children involved. This simple change can make a drastic impact."
Currently, when determining and making reasonable efforts under the provisions of the law, the health and safety of a child is of paramount concern. The law, however, does not specify that the best interests of the child should also be a primary consideration.
Lastly, the bill amends section 1 of P.L.1951, c.138 (C.30:4C-1) (child protective services) to stipulate that in accordance with the principles of the law and the public policy of the state, the best interests of the child would be a primary consideration. Currently, the principles outlined in the law and in state public policy stipulate that the safety of the child is of paramount concern, but it does not address the best interests of the child as a primary consideration.
The bill was released by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.