BOSTON — Massachusetts youth who routinely skip school, run away from home and find themselves in trouble could soon benefit from legislation that seeks to overhaul the system that handles their cases.
Passed in the state Legislature shortly this week, the bill would overhaul the state’s Children In Need of Services program, which handles kids between the ages of 6 and 17 who often get into trouble.
If signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, it would create a timeframe for children to receive social services under the program, require school districts to implement truancy prevention efforts for students who often miss school and attempt to remove the stigma of the current system by removing the “CHINS” label for these children.
The bill also aims to keep these cases out of Juvenile Court, where they are currently handled, and would place a greater emphasis on family and community by creating community resource centers, among other things.
Supporters of the bill say it will fix the system’s shortcomings when it comes to addressing the needs of troubled children. Patrick hasn’t indicated whether he will sign the bill into law.
The changes will focus more on the family unit as a whole rather than the child’s behavior, as well as allow families to access social services outside of the court system, said Sen. Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who sponsored the proposal.
She said she believes the focus on family is important because a “kid’s behavior is often a symptom of a larger problem,” like mental health issues or problems at home.
Spilka points to cases of children who’ve ended up in the program because they missed school to help care for a sick parent or repeatedly ran away to escape a bad home life.
Advocates also argue that many parents do not understand that they can lose custody of their child by filing for help through this system. They say the overhaul bill would cut down on the number of older children entering foster services.
Currently, guardians and school districts can file CHINS petitions to the Juvenile Court asking for help with supervising these children.
But educators have expressed concerns over the legislation’s requirement for school districts to create programs that deter children from missing school.
Mike Gilbert, from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees a group that represents and advocates for the interests of school leaders, called the requirement “another unfunded mandate.”
Gilbert said that schools are already struggling with funding, especially those in urban districts where truancy is a large issue. He added that, by law, schools are required to have a truancy officer.
According to the most recent data from the Massachusetts Juvenile Court system, a total of 7,266 CHINS applications were filed in fiscal year 2011, with the most coming from Worcester County, home of the second-largest city in the state.
For 25-year-old Juliette Saint Paul, however, the potential changes would represent a “second chance” for kids who struggle during their youth.
Now an advocate for the program’s reform, Saint Paul said she was around 13 when she was given an ultimatum by the state: Go to school and come home on time, or be taken out of your mother’s care.
Saint Paul, who graduated from high school and now works at Tempo Young Adult Resource Center in Framingham, said she would miss school for different reasons, like being sick or issues at home.
She said once labeled a “CHINS kid,” a person is stigmatized for life.
“People don’t look at you as human. They look at you as trash, as a criminal,” Saint Paul said. “What CHINS reform does is help you get a second chance.”
Saint Paul, who bounced from her mother’s custody to her father’s and eventually was placed into foster care, said community resource programs like the ones offered at Tempo Young Adult Resource Center and in the legislation would have been beneficial to her as a teenager.
“If I had something like Tempo when I was younger, I would’ve been on spot,” she said.