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MWDN Op-Ed: Change Status Quo for Juvenile Offenders

July 14, 2011

By Sen. Karen Spilka and Rep. Paul Donato
Guest Columnists
The MetroWest Daily News

ASHLAND — At a recent hearing at the State House, Juan X stated that at the age of 13, he was thrust into the juvenile justice system for fighting and other behavior problems in school. Over the course of four years in state custody, his underlying bipolar disorder was never diagnosed or treated. His mother’s serious depression remained unknown, as was the persistent bullying he faced in school – both of which contributed to his frequent outbursts.

Because of his complex mental health issues, he had many different parole officers and foster families. He stated that because of all these issues, he failed to complete high school.

Earlier this year, we were joined by many legislative colleagues, advocates, organizations, children, and families from across the Commonwealth to officially launch the Families and Children Engaged in Services (FACES) Coalition Campaign. As a group, we strongly advocate for legislation, which we filed, to transform the Children in Need of Services (CHINS) system and the way our state assists children and their families in times of need.

The present system was put in place as a way to correct the behavior of children who are truant, runaway, or seen as “ungovernable.” CHINS gives families only one option when they are looking to get the adequate services they need to address behavioral issues: the court system.

CHINS was originally created to keep these children out of the juvenile justice system by working to correct their behavior. But the only way to receive the services they need is to go through a court process – conducted in the same courts and with the same probation officers as the juvenile delinquency process, making the entry point for these children the very process we are looking to avoid.

By focusing solely on the child’s behavior and not the family as a whole, in many cases, the courts end up pitting the parents versus the child. A staggering 8,000 children were involved in the CHINS system in 2010 alone, and more than 50 percent of these children suffer from unmet mental health disorders. Time has changed and this system, which was put in place nearly four decades ago, needs to evolve into one which adequately meets the needs of these children by using a 21st century approach.

We know that early intervention is essential for effective intervention when it comes to troubled children, teens, and families.

Our bill, An Act Regarding Families and Children Engaged in Services (FACES), will transform the system into one in which we can offer help to children and families in a more effective, timely, and comprehensive manner. This community-based system will provide services aimed at dealing not just with the child’s behavioral issues but with the family as a whole. It will shift the initial intervention from the court system to local family oriented resource centers which will not only help provide services to the child but will help give families the tools they need to raise their child.

One of the main goals of FACES is to keep children out of the juvenile court system because research has shown that children involved in the juvenile justice system are at a greater risk of ending up in the adult criminal system. FACES would also be a voluntary system, giving parents the option of working with the courts if they deem it necessary. In some situations, the courts are necessary but we need a system where they are not the only option.

FACES would be gradually implemented over four years and would build off of the existing Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative and the excellent work that is being done in bullying prevention.

By shifting the front door from the courts to our communities, we will see savings in other areas and programs. For example, the Committee for Public Counsel Services testified that it will save $4 million annually because fewer court-appointed attorneys will be needed to represent children.

The plan for a delayed implementation will allow these and other resources to be reallocated in order to support the programs and initiatives of FACES.

Over the long term, FACES will actually save the Commonwealth money by facilitating early, more effective intervention, keeping these children out of the criminal justice and correction system. It will also provide a more unified method of data collection, helping us identify what services are and are not available.

Armed with this knowledge, we will more efficiently allocate our resources and reduce waste, again saving the state and taxpayers money.

We have been dedicated to this work of implementing a new system for six years. We have listened to hundreds of stakeholders, including many parents and children who spoke about their experiences in the CHINS system and their repeated calls for reform.

Time and time again, we heard powerful testimony urging us that children should not have to go to court, that they should have access to necessary services without entering the juvenile justice system, and that a focus needs to be placed on helping children and their families, not just addressing their behavior. Their voices have been strong and they have been heard.

We have learned so much over the past decades about how to help those in need. We should have a system that can leverage that knowledge in the best interests of our children and their families.

By implementing the programs of FACES, we believe that children like Juan and his family will receive access to needed services without exacerbating their situation and before it becomes dire. By doing this, we will be creating healthier children, strengthening and supporting families, making our communities stronger and safer, and ultimately investing in the well-being of our collective future.

Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, represents the 2nd Middlesex and Norfolk District. Rep. Paul Donato, D-Medford, represents the 35th Middlesex District.

 
Read more: http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/archive/x1498055061/Spilka-and-Donato-Change-status-quo-for-juvenile-offenders#ixzz1S5m4k9tN

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