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Changes to N.H. child services might have to wait

CONCORD, N.H. — When funding for the state’s primary system connecting at-risk children and their families with a broad range of social services was rolled back two years ago, the result was immediate and dramatic, according to law enforcement, educators, and service providers.

With support from Governor Maggie Hassan and both houses of the Legislature, the Children in Need of Services program, known as CHINS, is likely to be restored, but many child advocates see this as an opportunity to improve the program, which they say needed changes even before being shrunk.

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Those opposed to making immediate changes argue it will increase costs beyond what’s allotted for the program. Hassan set aside $8.2 million per year for the program in her proposed budget, close to $3 million less than funding prior to the cuts.

CHINS is a petition process allowing courts to intervene with children determined likely to become delinquent, but in 2011 it was narrowed to serve only children with severe mental problems or who pose a danger to themselves or the public. That reduced the program’s ranks from about 400 at any given time to the current level of 50 to 60.

Kensington police Chief Mike Sielecki said the threat of a court appearance was enough to get most kids to improve their behavior, but that since the cuts, his officers are forced into an unsustainable supervisory role, especially with truants and runaways. Others have complained that the change in scope has removed the teeth from truancy laws. Education Commissioner Virginia Barry said the cuts contributed to an increase in New Hampshire’s high school dropout rate.

The program hasn’t seen major changes in its 34-year existence, and many child welfare workers support a House-passed bill that would reform how the program is administered as early as September.

Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg said in a statement that the governor recognizes the program needs review and backs a proposed study commission to improve CHINS in the future, but that she has not thrown her support behind changes called for in the House bill. The study commission would look at best practices from around the country and make recommendations in time for lawmakers to act on them within the biennium.

Before the cuts, runaways, truants, or children exhibiting serious behavioral problems could receive counseling and rehabilitative services from the state only after a petition had gone to court and a judge required they participate.

Many involved want to make services available to children and their families without having to get a court order. They argue that keeping cases out of the legal system would reduce the burden on backlogged courts bringing costs down. It would also lower the long-term societal costs of involving large numbers of children in the juvenile justice system, they say.

Noah Simonton, 17, said he wishes it had been easier to get mental health services when he went through the CHINS process. He was deeply depressed and self-mutilating after his mother abandoned him at 13. He moved back in with his father, but the two clashed.

His father filed a CHINS petition, and a court order landed Simonton in a group home. He bounced around the juvenile justice system for close to 2½ years, but it was only toward the end of that period that he started seeing a therapist. It was immensely helpful, he said, and he doesn’t understand why it took so long.

‘‘In the juvenile court it seems to be more about punishing the child than helping them,’’ he said, ‘‘I was a CHINS kid and I needed help, and it really felt like the court system failed me.’’

Noah recently earned his GED and is living with his father again. He is looking for jobs and thinking about applying to college.

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