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Lawmakers back overhaul of state system for runaways, truants

The frenetic end of the legislative session at the State House included a major overhaul of the Commonwealth’s system for handling children who are ­often in trouble at home or school.

The legislation calls for a system of community-based programs that will provide children with mental health and substance abuse counseling as an alternative to the juvenile justice system.

“The community programs will be the front door,” said Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which lobbied for the changes.

Sudders and other advocates said the legislation marked the first overhaul of the Children in Need of Services system, known as CHINS, since it was created in the 1970s. The Legislature passed the bill this week, and Governor Deval Patrick is reviewing it.

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Under the new system, which will be phased in over the next three years if Patrick signs the bill, ­social service agencies will seek to address problems at a family level, with the goal of keeping more children in their homes.

“If a kid is in need of services, often the family is, too,” said Sudders, the former state mental health commissioner.

The CHINS program deals with about 8,000 children a year. Advocates have lobbied for years to change the program, which they say needlessly brings wayward teenagers into the juvenile justice system and creates a stigma that can make them feel like criminals.

“This bill will give the thousands of children and families who need assistance each year a clearer path,” said Senator ­Karen Spilka, a Democrat from Ashland and chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

The bill also prohibits children from being arrested, confined in shackles, or placed in a court lockup unless they are accused of breaking the law. It requires school districts to offer truancy prevention programs for students before referring them to juvenile court.

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Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.