October 1st, 2011

Senate approves legislation to transform CHINS program

The Massachusetts Senate unanimously approved legislation aimed at transforming the Children in Need of Services (CHINS) program, which critics say unnecessarily puts troubled children into the court system.

The proposed overhaul would instead offer a state-wide community-based intervention network of family resource centers and community-based services and try to divert children and their families from the legal process to the appropriate behavioral, medical and mental health treatment or preventative services.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), has been working to pass this legislation for six years. The children in the system are often habitually truant or runways. Spilka says of the approximately 8,000 CHINS cases in court every year, about half of the youths have mental health disorders, many undiagnosed. Additionally, she says many parents are afraid to file a CHINS petition to get their child the help they need because “they felt it was throwing their child into the juvenile justice system they were trying to keep them out of.”

The system was created in 1973. “It’s ironic because the original goal was to prevent children from entering the juvenile justice system,” Spilka says. “But with the system that was created, whether it was intended or not back in the early 70s, what happens is in order to receive services – including mental health services – they have to enter the juvenile justice system to get them. It just really struck me how ironic it is that they are entering the system to stay out of the system. How does that make sense?”

Spilka says studies show that children involved in the juvenile court system at an early age are more likely to be in the adult justice system later in life.

“I believe that parents and children should not have to go to court to get the needed services,” Spilka says. “And that’s what this legislation does. It creates up-front community-based family resource centers around the state that families can be referred to on a voluntary basis.

“The sooner you can get services to a child and their families, the faster and the more effective those services are.”

In addition to being community-based, services would focus on both children and their families.

Spilka envisions the family resource centers having case workers with an intake program and uniform screening tool to help refer youths and their families to the appropriate services.

“The current system, I feel, creates a very adversarial position. The parent goes to court, filing a CHINS petition against the child,” she says. “And when it goes to court, oftentimes the parents don’t have as much of a voice, if any voice.”

If the family chooses not to pursue help through the family resource center, parents can go to court to request assistance and have a juvenile probation officer assigned. And, as a last resort, parents may go before a judge.

Spilka, who has an undergraduate degree in social work, says such a program can save money for the state by getting families the help they need sooner and by helping to keep children out of the criminal justice system when they become adults.

“We are creating healthier children, who, when they grow into adults, will have healthier families,” she says. “We’re investing in the well-being of our collective future.”

The bill also would require school districts to establish truancy prevention programs and prohibit children requiring assistance from being placed in the Department of Youth Services custody, confined in shackles, or confined in a court lockup in connection with any request for assistance.

At press time, the House of Representatives had not voted on the bill.

By Pamela Berard

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