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Legislature Approves Major Reform of CHINS System

July 31, 2012

Spilka races to file CHINS legislation before the end of session.
Credit: State House News Service

BOSTON – The Legislature today sent to the Governor legislation that will update the current system for handling children who consistently get in trouble at home or at school, including runaways and students who are habitually truant, transforming the 38-year-old Children in Need of Services (CHINS) program that critics say unnecessarily puts troubled children in front of a judge before seeking services to help the children and their families.

“For several decades, the CHINS system has not been working as intended by the legislature to keep children out of the juvenile justice system,” said Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), chief Senate sponsor of the bill. “It is difficult to overestimate the importance of passing this critical reform. This bill will give the thousands of children and families who need assistance each year a clearer path to accessing the services and supports they need without exacerbating their situation and before it becomes dire. The bill will make a huge, positive difference in the lives of our families, our friends, our neighbors, our communities, and will strengthen our state as a whole.”

“The current system is too complex and too confusing, and it unnecessarily drags some children in front of a judge over and over again,” Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said. “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. The reforms in this bill will improve children’s lives and help keep families together.”

“I am proud that Chairman Dempsey, Leader Donato, members of the conference committee and the Legislature as a whole have taken strong action to protect at-risk youths,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “We need to get many of these children out of the legal system and into services and other support programs with their families so we can best ensure that they lead lives as productive residents of our state. These are practical reforms that help children and families in the short term and strengthen the Commonwealth in the long-term.”

“This legislation would be the first step in replacing the existing “Children in Need of Services” (CHINS) system – which is not meeting the needs of children and families in the Commonwealth,” said Third Division Chair Paul Donato (D-Medford). “This reform will replace CHINS in the future with a new system that will provide preventative services and keep children in their homes and schools without overburdening courts, police and probation. It will create a statewide system of community-based programs that will provide direct access to mental health or substance abuse counseling.”

“This legislation is important to address the needs of children and families across Massachusetts,” said Senator Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster), a conferee and Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “Children in the CHINS system are an extremely vulnerable population and it is incumbent upon us, as public officials, to improve the manner in which services are received. I’m proud of this legislation for enhancing the process by which families are able to request and receive services for their children. I am confident that many provisions in this legislation will enhance the ability to help these families and ultimately strengthen the foundation for their future.”

“Through this legislation, the conferees were able to agree to this thoughtful approach that moves us in the right direction of reforming the CHINS system,” said House Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Brian S. Dempsey (D-Haverhill). “I feel strongly that the pilot programs created by this legislation will allow us to accurately identify families and children who can be better served by alternative services to the court system.”

“I am pleased the Legislature has made this bill a priority prior to adjournment,” said Senator Michael Knapik (R-Westfield), the ranking Republican member of the conference committee. “By incorporating families into the process and keeping juveniles out of the court system, I am confident this bill will connect at-risk youth with the appropriate resources so that behavior modification and counseling can have the desired long-term impact.”

“This reform will strengthen families, 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,” said State Representative Dan Winslow (R-Norfolk), who previously served as a District Court Judge.

The bill breaks down barriers between the juvenile court, parents and the community, and it creates a second access point for children to receive necessary services. It establishes a statewide network of family resource centers to provide community-based intervention and promote school and local resources for both the children in need and their families.

The new system, established under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, 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.

The bill also:

  • De-stigmatizes the process by deleting the “CHINS” label for children receiving services;
  • 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; 
  • Ensures that the child and family fully understand procedures by requiring that information be given to parents in writing at the beginning of the court process;
  • Creates a realistic timeframe for children and families to receive the necessary services; and 
  • Requires school districts to establish truancy prevention programs that would be offered to habitually truant students before referring them to juvenile court.

Finally, the bill creates a standardized data collection system to evaluate outcomes and ensure the Commonwealth and the child appropriately benefit from the new system.

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