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Reformers rap House redraft of system for troubled kids

A Massachusetts House proposal to change the way the state handles troubled children who frequently run away from home or habitually skip school has advocates feeling betrayed and disappointed because they say it does not go far enough to help children.

Supporters of the House bill, a new redraft of state Senate-approved legislation, say it is a starting point in revamping the Children in Need of Services, or CHINS, juvenile court-based system established in 1973.

One year after the Senate passed legislation to reform the system, the House bill was released from the House Ways and Means Committee this week and could be debated later this week.

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Advocates said the House bill is not what they expected because it does not completely change the current process of bringing children and families to juvenile court. Instead, the House bill keeps the current law in place, while an advisory committee is created to set up a pilot program.

Nancy Allen Scannell, director of policy and planning at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said she was “very disappointed” with the House bill.

“It can’t be termed a CHINS reform bill,” she said.

Allen Scannell said there have already been similar pilot programs tested around the state. “We are way past the pilot stage at this point,” she said.

Last July, the state Senate passed legislation to reform a system that critics say fails children and their families. The system, advocates of changing it say, too frequently does not identify and address the root causes of behavioral problems, which could include mental health issues, domestic violence, bullying, substance abuse, or gang involvement.

Currently, according to advocates of the bill, the system puts children between 6 to 18 years old into the criminal justice system with a probation officer assigned, even if they have not been accused of breaking the law. Each year, the state receives approximately 9,000 applications for services for these troubled children and of those, 6,000 cases go through court.

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The Senate bill makes policy changes aimed at fostering mentorship, mediation, and counseling. It renames the system FACES, for Families and Children Engaged in Services.

Advocates said they are pushing for lawmakers to pass something closer to the Senate bill. If House lawmakers pass legislation, the branches will have less than three weeks to reconcile differences between the two bills before formal sessions end — the time when most major legislation is completed.

“It’s horrible. We feel betrayed by the Ways and Means Committee,” Stephen O’Neill, executive director of Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement — a group advocating for changes — said about the House bill.

O’Neill’s group held several rallies outside the State House during the past year, urging House lawmakers to debate changes to a system they say is broken because it creates a pipeline to the state’s prisons by desensitizing young people to the courts. Having youths who have not been charged with anything go through the courts makes it more likely they will end up back there someday, O’Neill said.

“It gets a person used to being in court, so it feels like no big deal anymore,” he said.

The goal of the changes is to make the courts and probation department secondary to families receiving other services, according to state Representative Paul Donato, Democrat of Medford, who has worked on changing the system for several years. Prior to going to court, families could seek help from a network of community-based agencies established around the state.

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“It is not just a child in need of services. In many cases it is a family in need of services,” Donato said.