New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law Tuesday that will allow teenagers under 18 to access mental health care treatment without permission of a parent. New Jersey is not the first state to pass such legislation, but it may be the first where teenagers helped craft the law and then lobbied for it themselves in front of a state legislature.
The Keystone Club of the Hudson County Boys & Girls Clubs, who call themselves The Griffins, representing courage and leadership, starting working on Bill A3435 in 2014. The bill was approved by the New Jersey Senate last June.
Janet Wallach, the director of program development and teen services for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hudson County, said she has no doubt the bill sailed through the Senate because of the passionate and personal pleas of The Griffins inside the state house in Trenton.
“I can’t find any other examples [nationally] where a group of teens initiated and changed state law,” Wallach said. “In a typical legislative hearing you have aides whispering in the legislators’ ears, you have rustling of papers, you have side conversations, but in the committee hearings where our kids testified, when they stepped up to the microphone, there was dead silence.
“Every single person paid attention to our kids. It was amazing.”
Wallach said the thrust of the bill was as a teen suicide prevention program. She said teens who fear coming out to their parents as gay, lesbian or transgender can be six times more likely to commit suicide.
She also said there are teens who seek mental health resources because they live in families with substance or alcohol abuse, or violence, but the help is only available with parental permission.
Wallach said the new law requires the New Jersey Department of Children and Families to have information on its website on how teens can access mental health resources, as well as printed materials to distribute to all behavioral health facilities and licensed professionals free of charge.
“These are kids who come from an inner-city environment and had no knowledge of the political process,” Wallach said. “They have done the research, and lobbied, and it was their voices that made this a reality.”
Said Jordan T., 19, one of the 20 Keystone Griffins: “We learned that we could affect change with our voices. Our stories could move people. That’s powerful. I surprised myself. I learned that I’m capable of so much more than I ever thought.”
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