BOSTON – The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a complete overhaul of the current system for handling children who consistently get in trouble at home or at school, including runaways and students who are habitually truant, State Senator Jamie Eldridge announced.
“This fundamental reform of our child services system will help ensure that troubled children and families are getting the help they need, when they need it. By providing families with mental health services, mentoring, support, and other preventative services, we can keep children out of the juvenile justice system and instead get them on a path towards success,” said State Senator Jamie Eldridge, who voted in support of the bill today.
The legislation transforms the 38-year-old Children in Need of Services (CHINS) 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.”
“After working on this for six years and hearing the repeated calls for reform from those involved in the CHINS system, I am thrilled that the Senate has passed our legislation to put in place a new procedure for assisting children and families in their time of need,” said Senator Spilka (D-Ashland), lead sponsor of the bill. “By implementing this new system, we will be improving children’s health, strengthening and supporting families, making our communities stronger and safer, and ultimately investing in the well-being of our collective future.”
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.
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.