Children in need
Thirty-eight years ago, the Massachusetts Legislature replaced the former state juvenile delinquent system with the Children in Need of Services (CHINS) program. Now it's time to replace CHINS.
Last week, the Legislature passed a bill that would overhaul CHINS, which unnecessarily puts troubled children under 17 in front of a judge before seeking social services to help the children and their families.
Gov. Deval Patrick should sign the legislation as soon as possible, even though there is one troubling aspect to the bill: It requires school districts to implement truancy prevention efforts for students who often miss school.
Mike Gilbert of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees told the Associated Press that the requirement represents "another unfunded mandate."
Gilbert said schools are already struggling with funding, especially those in urban districts where truancy is a major issue.
As a result, the Legislature should either fund the mandate or remove the requirement in the next legislative session.
Nevertheless, the other 99 percent of the bill represents a major step forward in dealing with juvenile delinquents.
According the Senate president's office, the bill:
Decriminalizes the process by prohibiting children requiring assistance from being arrested, confined in shackles or placed in a court lockup in connection with any request for assistance;
Focuses on the child and family as a unit — not just the behavior of the child — and allows the parents to be full and active participants in their child's proceedings;
Creates a realistic time frame for children and families to receive the necessary services;
State Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said she believes the focus on family is important because a "kid's behavior is often a symptom of a larger problem," like mental health issues or problems at home.
Spilka points to cases of children who've ended up in the program because they missed school to help care for a sick parent or repeatedly ran away to escape a bad home life.
"The current system is too complex and too confusing, and it unnecessarily drags some children in front of a judge over and over again," said Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth. "More than half of these children have some kind of mental health disorder and need better care and services instead of this taxing exposure to the courts which studies show will make them more likely to be involved in serious crimes later in life."
State Rep. Paul Donato, D-Medford, said the bill will replace CHINS with a new system that will provide preventative services and keep children in their homes and schools without overburdening courts, police and probation.
State Rep. Dan Winslow, R-Norfolk, who previously served as a district court judge, said the bill will guide children away from the criminal justice system, and reduce costs by focusing resources on prevention rather than punishment. "It makes sense on many levels, and I am pleased it received bipartisan support."
The bill also creates a pilot program for children to receive necessary services. Established under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the pilot program diverts children from the legal process when appropriate and instead provides behavioral, medical and mental health treatment and a number of other behavioral and preventative services. including special education evaluations, mentoring, family and parent support, and after-school and out-of-school opportunities.
8 August 2012