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Senate Approves Major Reform of CHINS System

July 14, 2011

BOSTON – The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed legislation filed by Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) to completely overhaul the current system for handling children who consistently get in trouble at home or at school, including runaways and students who are habitually truant.

“After working on this for six years, I am thrilled that the Senate has passed our legislation to put in place a new procedure for assisting our children and families in their time of need,” said Spilka. “We have listened to hours of testimony, including the heart-wrenching stories of many parents and children involved in the CHINS system. This legislation is in honor of all those children and families who thought their repeated calls for reform went unnoticed. This is their voice. They have been heard.”

The legislation transforms the 38-year-old program that critics say unnecessarily puts troubled children in front of a judge before seeking services to help the children and their families. The bill eliminates the inconsistent juvenile court-based system and replaces it with a statewide community-based intervention network that would integrate and promote school and community services for children and families.

“The current system is confusing to families who can be desperate for help,” 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 being dragged in front of a judge over and over. All the current studies suggest that children like this who are regularly exposed to the courts are more likely to be involved in serious crimes later in life. That’s why this bill and these reforms are so important.

“I especially want to acknowledge Senator (Karen) Spilka for all her hard work on this important legislation,” President Murray added. “It’s been a longtime coming, and it will improve children’s lives and help keep families together.”

The new system would be established under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and consist of a statewide network of family resource centers and community-based services for families and children requiring assistance.

“By transforming the system into one which takes a 21st century approach, children and their families will receive access to necessary services without exacerbating their situation and before it becomes dire,” Spilka said. “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.”

In 2005, Spilka launched a task force to explore the Commonwealth’s and other states’ practices and laws around the CHINS system. More than one hundred individuals participated in this effort including legislators, advocates, organizations, and children and families involved in the system. In 2007, Spilka and lead House Sponsor, Representative Paul Donato (D-Medford), filed legislation to reform the system, based on the recommendations of the task force and the best practices of Massachusetts and other states.

Under the new system, children would be diverted from the legal process when appropriate and instead provided behavioral, medical and mental health treatment; special education evaluations; mentoring, family and parent support; after-school and out-of-school opportunities; crisis management and other behavioral and preventative services.

The bill also:

  • Requires school districts to establish truancy prevention programs that would be offered to habitually truant students before referring them to juvenile court;
  • Allows requests for assistance to be filed by parents/guardians, police officers and schools;
  • Prohibits children requiring assistance from being placed in DYS custody, confined in shackles or confined in a court lockup in connection with any request for assistance;
  • Mandates that a law enforcement officer may only take a child into custodial protection if the child either disobeyed a summons or if the officer has probable cause to believe the child has run away from home and will not respond to a summons; and
  • Requires the probation department to report on the services provided by probation officers to children and families who require assistance.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for further action.

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