By Bonny Saulnier and Nina Lewis
Each year, 8,000 Massachusetts families with children who are not attending school, who are not responding to parental guidance, and who may be struggling with mental health, domestic violence, bullying or other issues are routed through the court system through the filing of a CHINS (Child in Need of Services) petition in order to get help.
The CHINS system, which was established in 1973, is intended to provide assistance to children and families of children who are “habitually truant, run away from home or refuse to obey the lawful and reasonable commands of their parent(s) or guardian(s) and/or the rules of their school.” Under Massachusetts law, parents, legal guardians, truancy officers and police are empowered to petition the courts to demand services for troubled children. While the goal of CHINS is laudatory, the system is outdated and has not caught up to what we now know works best for children and families.
Studies indicate that children exposed to the juvenile court system are more likely to be involved in serious crimes later in life. Therefore, one of the original goals of CHINS was to prevent children from ever becoming involved in the juvenile justice system. Another goal was to keep families and children together. It is ironic then that the sole access point for CHINS services is the juvenile court; that in many cases the courts unintentionally wind up pitting parents against the child in an adversarial process; and that parents are often reluctant to engage in the CHINS process at all out of fear they will lose custody of their children.
Courts and probation officers neither have the time nor the resources to help children and families assess their underlying needs and access the kinds of services, such as mental health care (nationally 50 percent of children involved in juvenile justice have diagnosable mental health disorders), that will keep the family together and keep the child from getting into further trouble.
It’s time for change.
A bill before the Legislature, called Families and Children Engaged in Services, would replace CHINS with a new process that will provide preventive services that have been demonstrated to be successful in keeping children in their homes and schools and that do not expect the court system to solve family issues. FACES will provide more effective and timely services aimed at addressing both the child’s behavioral issues and problems in the family as well. The new system will shift initial intervention from the court system to local, family-oriented programs, providing an effective alternative for families to access the kinds of help, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, which can heal the root causes of delinquent behavior.
The FACES system will work to keep families together. Not surprisingly, troubled children, like all children, fare much better when they can remain with parents and siblings. Whenever possible, FACES will direct families away from the legal system, which will keep parents from making the intolerable “choice” of forfeiting custody of their children in order to get needed services.
Families will still be able to utilize the juvenile justice system when it is most appropriate for their child. The FACES legislation will streamline the juvenile court procedures when parents need to go this route.
FACES will be gradually implemented over four years through a reallocation of resources. When fully implemented, it will actually save the state money by facilitating early and more effective intervention and keeping kids out of the correctional system.
We have learned so much over the past decade about how to help troubled children and families. We need a new system that can leverage that knowledge in the best interest of children and families. The Senate passed this bill 39-0, but it is still awaiting action in the House of Representatives. Given the strong consensus behind FACES, we believe the House should take action without further delay. Every month we delay, hundreds of children are subject to a broken system. Why wait when we can improve the system now?
Bonny Saulnier is vice president for Community Services at Wayside Youth and Family Support Network. Nina Lewis is a peer leader with Roxbury Youthworks' GIFT Program.