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The Podium

Get troubled children the help they need

Snow-covered stuffed animals sit at a memorial to victims of the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Tuesday. The perpetrator was a mentally ill young man whose mother had reportedly struggled in dealing with him.

AP photo

In the wake of the horrific and heartbreaking shootings in Newtown, Conn., there has been a lot of talk about mental health. Other stories that have emerged have also been distressing: a mother who is fearful of her 13-year-old son; a psychiatrist who could not get services for his boy until the police came in, hogtied his son and took him away.

What is striking about the discussion in recent days is how often the worlds of mental illness and criminal justice intersect. But surely a police station, court or prison is not the appropriate place for our children to be evaluated and treated for mental health.

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As Liza Long, now well known as the author of the blog post “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” stated: “No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options.”

This has been the reality for far too long. But in Massachusetts, we have taken steps to decouple the need for mental health and substance abuse services from the criminal system. This year, we finally passed a reform of the nearly 40-year-old Children in Need of Services (CHINS) system, which for decades forced parents, teachers and other adults to enter the complex world of juvenile justice simply to access the most basic of mental health services for their children.

Our revised approach, nearly 10 years in the making, seeks to lower the barriers that families and young individuals face when in need of mental health or substance abuse services. It builds a statewide network of family resource centers where parents and children can access these services within their communities, rather than requiring they first go to jail or court.

Too often, families just don’t know where to turn for help — and there may not even be established mental health services close to where they live. This new law will allow us to fill those gaps while communicate existing services more quickly and effectively.

Most importantly, this reform involves the entire family, not just the particular child, in the help that is being provided. It is rare that a child “acts out” in isolation from his or her environment and family situation. Often, the child is reacting in part to a mother’s depression, a father’s verbal abuse, a sibling’s chronic illness, or any number of difficult internal circumstances. By giving whole families the support they need, we are much more likely to ensure the success of the individual child.

Finally, this new law prohibits children who request help from being arrested, confined in shackles or placed in a court lockup in connection with their request. It is shocking that that is how we have treated some of the most vulnerable members of our population — our children — and it is time for this to stop.

The passage of the CHINS reform bill this year is good news for our children and families, and I am proud of the work the Legislature and countless others did to see it through. Once again, Massachusetts is leading the way on an issue of great importance to our children, and to society as a whole.

There is a less-than-silver lining, however: This reform is currently scheduled to be implemented over the course of three years. The tragedy in Newtown has brought a much greater sense of urgency to this issue. I would argue that these reforms need to be implemented now. Waiting would be a disservice to our youth, their families, and all residents of Massachusetts.

There is no question that this approach can bring us closer to identifying the Adam Lanzas of the world before they snap. But its overall benefit is much broader. Quite simply, a large portion of our children will be given a better shot at life.

Better mental health and treatment options mean a more successful school career and an increased chance of becoming a productive, tax-paying member of society. I think we can all agree that a kid who is struggling at school, has an unstable home life, and is living with an undiagnosed bipolar disorder should not then be burdened with a criminal record just so he can get the diagnosis and medication he needs. This approach is not going to give him a better chance of success in life. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

Many politicians have stated in recent days that they will do whatever it takes to address gun control in the wake of this most recent shooting. In Massachusetts, we are lucky that we already have strict gun laws. Governor Patrick’s administration has the opportunity, right now, to change the way our children and families access the mental health and other services they need to grow, heal and thrive. I hope you will join me in calling on the governor to implement CHINS reform now.

Karen Spilka, a Democratic state senator from Ashland, served as the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities from 2005 to 2008. Prior to being elected to the Legislature, she worked as a social worker.
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