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Read about us in State House News: HOUSE PLAN TO PILOT CHINS SYSTEM CHANGES DISAPPOINTS ACTIVISTS
HOUSE PLAN TO PILOT CHINS SYSTEM CHANGES DISAPPOINTS ACTIVISTS
By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JULY 10, 2012…. A House proposal to change the way the state handles troubled children who frequently run away from home or habitually skip school has advocates feeling “betrayed” and “disappointed” because they say it does not go far enough to help children.
Supporters of the House bill, a new redraft of Senate-approved legislation, say it is a starting point in revamping the Children in Need of Services (CHINS) juvenile court-based system established in 1973.
One year after the Senate passed legislation to reform the CHINS system, the House bill (H 4244) was released from the House Ways and Means Committee this week and could be debated later this week.
Advocates said the House bill is not what they expected because it does not completely change the current process of bringing children and families to juvenile court. Instead, the House bill keeps the current CHINS law in place, while an advisory committee is created to set up a pilot program.
Nancy Allen Scannell, director of policy and planning at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said she was “very disappointed” with the House bill.
“It can’t be termed a CHINS reform bill,” she said.
Allen Scannell said there have already been similar pilot programs tested around the state. “We are way passed the pilot stage at this point,” she said.
Last July, the Senate passed legislation (S 1963) to reform a system that critics say fails children and their families. CHINS too frequently does not identify and address the root causes of behavioral problems, which could include mental health issues, domestic violence, bullying, substance abuse or gang involvement, advocates of changing the system say.
Currently, according to advocates of the bill, the CHINS system puts children between 6 to 18 years old into the criminal justice system with a probation officer assigned to them even if they have not been accused of breaking the law. Each year, the state receives approximately 9,000 applications for CHINS services and of those 6,000 cases go through court.
The Senate bill makes policy changes aimed at fostering mentorship, mediation and counseling. It renames the system FACES or Families and Children Engaged in Services.
Advocates said they are pushing for lawmakers to pass something closer to the Senate bill. If House lawmakers pass legislation, the branches will have less than three weeks to reconcile differences between the two bills before formal sessions end – the time when most major legislation is completed.
“It’s horrible. We feel betrayed by the Ways and Means Committee,” Stephen O’Neill, executive director of Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA) - a group advocating for changes - said about the House bill.
EPOCA held several rallies outside the State House during the last year, urging House lawmakers to debate changes to a system they say is “broken” and creates a pipeline to the state’s prisons by desensitizing young people to the courts. Having kids that have not been charged with anything go through the courts makes it more likely they will end up back there someday facing criminal charges, O’Neill said.
“It gets a person used to being in court, so it feels like no big deal anymore,” he said.
The goal of the reforms is to make the courts and probation department secondary to families receiving other services, according to Rep. Paul Donato (D-Medford), who has worked on changing the CHINS systems for several years. Prior to going to court, families could seek help from a network of community-based agencies established around the state.
“It is not just a child in need of services, in many cases it is a family in need of services,” Donato said. “In the seven years we have been doing this, we found that many of the young people before the courts are in need of mental health services, or in need family services. Sometimes it is the family that is dysfunctional and in need of help.”
Donato said the House bill is “not as comprehensive” as the Senate version, but called it a “first step.” He said he plans to talk to House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill) about some changes he would like to incorporate.
“What has come out of Ways and Means is a start of the changes we are trying to make to the CHINS bill,” Donato told the News Service. “I am confident the chairman of Ways and Means is open to listening to the concerns we have in regards to the CHINS reforms.”
Dempsey did not return calls to discuss the Ways and Means bill.
While the Senate passed CHINS legislation last July, it has never come up for debate in the House during the past seven years. Donato said the fact that a bill received a “blessing” from the Ways and Means Committee is encouraging.
Donato said he was encouraged that the House may debate the bill for the first time in the many years that it has been filed.
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