MWDN Editorial: A Better Way to Help Troubled Kids
The MetroWest Daily News
July 24, 2011
America has long had a tendency to turn to the police and courts to solve social problems. So when the state created its Children in Need of Services program 40 years ago, it put juvenile courts in charge of matching troubled children with the services required to correct their behavior. Parents having trouble controlling their kids petitioned the court for intervention, and the system took over from there.
The CHINS system is not for juveniles charged with crimes. It was designed for youth with behavioral problems like truants, runaways and children who used to be called incorrigible. Today, we understand that those behaviors begin with other problems, notably mental illness and families in crisis.
But judges and probation officers are not great at diagnosing mental illness. Out of more than 8,000 children involved in the CHINS system in 2010, more than half had untreated mental health disorders, according to state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland.
Moreover, the juvenile court system, which requires every child be represented by an attorney, can break a troubled family apart as easily as help it over a rough spot. While the CHINS system has surely intervened successfully countless times, there have been too many instances where parents desperately seeking help for their children have ended up losing them to foster care or institutionalization.
There’s a better way. For six years, Spilka and other legislators have worked with parents and children with experience in the CHINS system, social service providers and other stakeholders to shape reform. That process has resulted in legislation, sponsored by Spilka and Rep. Paul Donato, D-Medford, that would allow parents to get community-based mental health and family counseling services without seeking a court order.
The system they propose, tagged Families and Children Engaged in Services, or FACES, would be voluntary. Parents would still have access to the courts if they consider it necessary. But most would go directly to community-based centers, where the emphasis would be on helping the entire family and providing immediate mental health treatment where needed.
The FACES system, to be phased in over four years, would save money short-term: Just providing public defenders for kids in CHINS hearings costs taxpayers $4 million a year. Long term, the reforms promise earlier, more effective intervention, with fewer children winding up in the juvenile court system and fewer troubled teens growing to be troubled, and dangerous, adults. That saves money too – and lives.
This bill deserves to be put on the short list of legislation brought to a vote this session.