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The Role of Public Relations in Politics is a monthly column written by WWPR member Margaret
Mulvihill, examining the role of PR in politics.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Washington Women in Public Relations

WHEN PR AND POLITICS COLLIDE

Many of us remember Y2K as the transition year from the twentieth century to the twenty-first.
A major melt-down in financial and other institutions was widely anticipated, with corporations
working tirelessly to prevent that from happening, and failing that, to have systems in place as a
protective measure.

Against that backdrop, as we successfully transitioned over to the twenty-first century, child
advocate Heather O’Neil was working tirelessly to increase awareness of the unique needs
of foster children.  Her efforts in pulling diverse people together in common cause were so
successful that year that the State of New Jersey designated December 12, 2000 as Foster
Children’s Day.  A Senate Joint resolution (#13) of the 29th John Lynch and Jack Sinagra, and co-sponsored by Senators Vitale, Matheussen and  Assemblyman Cottrell, was pre-filed for introduction in the 2000 session.

USING A MIX OF PR AND POLITICS TO INCREASE AWARENESS

The special day was created to increase awareness of the unique needs of foster children –
children placed in the state’s care to provide them with a temporary yet secure safety net until
their family environment became safe enough for them to return.

When then-Governor of New Jersey Jim McGreevy was signing the proclamation into law back
in 2003, he called on state and local government, private organizations and the general public to
become more involved with foster children, and to acknowledge that these special children were
important and loved. While in office, Governor McGreevy took aggressive steps to safeguard
vulnerable children in the system, notably creating the Child Advocate, an independent
watchdog with far-reaching legal powers to protect the children he serves.  McGreevy urged
more people to become foster parents.

The national statistics are cold and hard, drawn from the Administration for Children & Families.
There were 423,773 children in foster care nation-wide on September 30, 2009, with a median
age of 9.7 years.  Plainly put, that means that most of our foster children today are just under 10
years old and spend an average of 15 months in the system. The attached pdf makes for grim
reading.

THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC RELATIONS

However, no matter how grim the statistics, Heather has neither given up nor given in.  She
has made many friends and drawn even more people to the cause.  Senator Joe Vitale has
performed great work on behalf of the foster children of  New Jersey, organizing the BackPack
Campaign (in partnership with Stand for Children, New Jersey Division of Youth and Family
Services (DYFS), and New Jersey Foster and Adoptive Family Services), which gives foster
children in New Jersey backpacks donated by area individuals and businesses that contain
notebooks, stuffed animals and personal items.

Bert Baron, the host of New Jersey TODAY (1450 WCTC) was recognized recently for his work
in highlighting the plight of foster children. This recognition aired live and online, with Edison
Mayor Antonia Ricigliano presenting a special proclamation marking Foster Children’s Day
in New Jersey. Former First Lady Lucinda Florio and Commissioner Allison Blake of the New
Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) also participated, along with Heather.
Senator Vitale called in to the show to offer his support and congratulations.

A NATIONAL DAY FOR FOSTER CHILDREN

While the State of New Jersey, then, has recognized its foster children and continues to
contribute in a meaningful way to these young lives, we need to recognize that this is not a
single-state issue.  New Jersey is not the only state in the union with children in foster care.
This is a nation-wide issue, and Heather now brings the cause to Washington, DC.  She is
calling on Congress to recognize our nation’s five hundred thousand plus foster children, each
with their own unique needs and experiences, by giving them their own day: National Foster
Children’s Day.  These children deserve their own day. They deserve our help in overcoming
the odds and becoming outstanding citizens like Heather O’Neil. This is a call to arms, a call
to get behind Heather and give her the support she needs to enlighten our congressmen and
women on the issues of our foster children nation-wide.  In this election year, contact your local
representative and get their support for Heather and the Foster Children of the United States of
America.

NEW JERSEY STATE SENATE CANDIDATE JAN BIDWELL

As New Jersey State Senate candidate Jan Bidwell said in support of Heather’s work: “Among
my most respected heroes are the children who have been removed from their biological homes
due to abuse and neglect, and who find their way to leading happy, productive lives. Foster
children face odds that most can’t comprehend. When offered the chance to do better, to be
better, most often those children jump at that chance. All too often, foster kids aren’t given enough chances to do all that they want to do. All too often,  they aren’t offered more chances because Americans simply don’t know what foster kids face. Heather O’Neil’s proposed National Foster Children’s Day is one avenue to help America to be informed about the realities facing our foster children. Heather O’Neil is a shining example of what can be done, as a child excelling as she came through the system, and as a person helping foster children have a better chance of making it.  I hope America recognizes National Foster Children’s Day. I hope these heroes of mine get the  nation’s respect and attention they deserve.”

Margaret Mulvihill is Director of Communications at Lawson Mulvihill in Washington, DC. Follow her
on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawsonmulvihill