Youngsters who chronically skip school, defy their parents, and get mixed up in destructive activities were once termed “stubborn children.” Today, they fall under the kinder rubric “Children in Need of Services.’’ But thousands of these children — even those who commit no crimes — are still processed through the juvenile-justice system and placed under the supervision of state probation officers.
Youth experts know a lot more now about the factors, ranging from bullying to mental illnesses, that cause children to go off track. Last year, the state Senate passed sensible legislation that, over time, would transfer supervision of these so-called CHINS cases to a social-service agency in the child’s community. But the House resisted such widespread changes, opting instead for a limited pilot program. Attempts are underway on Beacon Hill to resolve the differences.
Some probation officers feel threatened by the move and have communicated their displeasure to lawmakers. But this isn’t a job protection issue. It’s about doing what’s best for the roughly 8,000 children ages 6 to 18 who are headed for serious trouble each year. Often, the problem lies with the entire family, not just the child in question. Family counselors, not probation officers and juvenile courts, are best trained for these situations. Children who are dragged to court at an early age can quickly start to think of themselves as criminals and act accordingly.
Representative Paul Donato of Medford has led efforts in the House to adopt a bill similar to the expansive Senate version. House leaders have inched in the right direction, and debate is expected to continue Wednesday. Ideally, a final bill will reflect the Senate’s early efforts to reduce the number of children taken into police custody. The Senate version of the bill also calls for a four-year rollout — long enough to evaluate both the cost and effectiveness of steering the system away from courts and toward family resource centers. Massachusetts can do much better than treating troubled children like criminals.