NJ to allow counseling without parental consent at age 14

New Jersey is poised to join two dozen other states to allow children as young as 14 to seek counseling on their own without parental consent, as the nation grapples with a post-pandemic mental health crisis, especially among youth.

A state Senate panel at the Statehouse in Trenton on Thursday voted to approve lowering the age of consent for outpatient therapy in the state from 16 to 14, out of concern that kids who are afraid to share their thoughts with their parents might suffer in silence and even harm themselves.

Trinity Campbell, 17, and Jordan Thomas, 27, both of Jersey City, told the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee that the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hudson County provided support and critical assistance to help them cope with chaotic lives at home. They urged the committee to support the bill so other kids can find help.

Thomas — who was a key witness to the state reducing the age of consent for treatment from 18 to 16 years old nine years ago — said he was just 13 when he first dialed 911 to protect himself from abuse. The Boys and Girls Club “was my refuge,” he said. “As a teenager, I could have easily been another statistic of teen suicide.”

“I implore you to support this bill,” he added. “In a world where Instagram and TikTok dominate and children as young as 14 in our community are grappling with gun violence and trauma ... and don’t have people to talk to.”

But the 2-1/2-hour hearing was dominated by bitter opposition from parents and religious and community leaders, who unloaded their frustrations on state lawmakers with accusations of alienating children from their families. They remain resentful since the forced school closures and mask mandates during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the approval of controversial sexual education standards four year ago and school board policies that require districts to accept a student’s asserted gender identity without the consent of a parent.

“Unfortunately, we don’t trust the state. So many rights have been taken away from us,” said one parent, echoing the sentiment of the more than a dozen parents who testified during the respectful but tense hearing.

Former state Sen. Ed Durr from Gloucester County called the legislation “sheer lunacy” for “attempting to separate the parent from the child.”

“Our role as a parent does not stop at a certain age,” Durr said.

Several parents and community leaders demanded the bill be amended to specifically say it would not permit “gender-confused” children to access hormone blockers or other medical interventions to alter their sex.

“It’s a grooming bill which violates parents’ fundamental rights,” said the Rev. Greg Quinlan, president and executive director for the Center for Garden State Families.

“Not affirming the idea they were born in the wrong body is not child abuse,” Quinlan added.

Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, the committee’s chairman, repeatedly stressed that lowering the age of consent for mental health treatment would not permit these teens to obtain prescription drugs or medical care without parental consent.

All that is changing is the age of consent for younger teens seek outpatient help from a social worker, counselor or other mental health professional if feel they can’t ask their parents for help, he said.

“In the real world, families have issues. They don’t always talk to each other,” Vitale said. “We want them to talk to their parents, absolutely, but we are not going to judge these kids who don’t talk to their parents...Some parents are checked out and for whatever those reasons why, this bill is necessary.”

Ann Rosen of Plainfield said the danger here is what the bill doesn’t say but could be interpreted to mean “that could cause harm.”

“I think as our representatives, it’s your responsibility to look beyond the stated purpose to see how the loopholes that are written in here around parents or how this bill could fail our children,” Rosen testified. “No one in this room is looking to block access to needed services for young people who are struggling. We all want them to have it. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to pretend that this is the answer.”

Sen. Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, the bill’s prime sponsor, said he empathized as a parent of two young children, who he hopes will confide in him and his wife as they reach adolesence.

“But not everyone will have that luxury. Sometimes the cause of the mental illness or anguish will be in that (home) environment,” Mukherji said.

The legislation (S1188) was approved by the committee by a vote of 5-1, with one abstention. But it still has a long way to go. The bill still must win the support of the full Senate and repeat the process in the state Assembly before landing on the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy, who may sign it into law, change it, or veto it.

The U.S. suicide rate among 15-to-24-year-olds grew by 7% in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And several New Jersey hospital networks reported their emergency rooms were flooded in 2022 with anxious, depressed and suicidal teens.

From NJ.com