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Milford Daily News: Bill could change Children in Need of Services law

October 7, 2009

October 7, 2009
By Gregory Kwasnik, The Milford Daily News

An area lawmaker is proposing a major change in the way Massachusetts treats truants, runaways and other at-risk youth, shifting its focus from court orders to community-based early intervention and treatment.

Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, testified in support of her bill yesterday, saying a revamp of the state’s Children in Need of Services law is needed. The law is often a last resort for children and families who have exhausted all other intervention options.

“For many kids, the CHINS process works,” Spilka testified before the Joint Committee on Children and Families. “However, for many, many kids it does not.”

The CHINS law lets parents, schools and police petition the courts to intervene on the behalf of troubled, non-criminal youths. A judge can order psychological, medical and educational counseling and assign a parole officer to monitor the child’s progress. Typically, a CHINS agreement requires a child to regularly attend school, counseling, and drug and alcohol treatment programs and to respect a set curfew at home. Parents can make a CHINS request up to age 18 for their child, teachers up to age 16 for a student.

Judges currently handling CHINS cases also have the power to take children away from their families, giving temporary custody to the Department of Children and Families, which can put them in foster care.

The intent of the new bill, Spilka said, is to keep children in their own homes and out of the courts, which often carry a stigma for those seeking help.

“What we heard time and time again was that kids and parents felt they shouldn’t have to get a PO (parole officer) or go to court and get ‘stigmatized’ in order to get services,” Spilka said. “So we created a community-based service delivery system with some flexibility across the state.”

Spilka said that by solving problems outside the court system, children have a better chance of improving their lives at home without facing the possibility of foster care when it may not necessarily be needed.

Spilka’s bill would bring together the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Department of Youth Services and the Department of Mental Health to contract with community service agencies across the state. The contracted agencies would provide assessment screening, case management, crisis intervention and a variety of other services to at-risk children and their families.

By keeping treatment local, families could be more involved in the process; the bill includes several provisions calling for family counseling and family service plans.

The bill, as now written, would not eliminate the CHINS system. Instead, it would give families another option to receive state assistance.

Read more here.

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