Spilka Named to Head-Up Conference Committee on CHINS Reform

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Today, Senator Karen Spilka announced that she was named to serve as the Senate Chair of the six member conference committee tasked with resolving the differences between the Senate and House versions of the legislation to reform the current system for helping children who consistently get in trouble at home or at school, including runaways and students who are habitually truant.

“After working on this for seven years, we have heard time and time again that we need to transform the system into one which takes a 21st century approach and provides children and their families with access to the necessary services without exacerbating their situation and before it becomes dire,” said Spilka. “I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues on the conference committee to produce a final bill that puts in place a new procedure for assisting our children and families in their time of need.”

The legislation transforms the 38-year-old program that critics say unnecessarily puts troubled children in front of a judge before seeking services to help the children and their families. The Senate version of the bill eliminates the inconsistent juvenile court-based system and replaces it with a statewide community-based intervention network that would integrate and promote school and community services for children and families.

Under the new system in the Senate bill, children would be diverted from the legal process when appropriate and instead provided behavioral, medical and mental health treatment; special education evaluations; mentoring, family and parent support; after-school and out-of-school opportunities; crisis management and other behavioral and preventative services.

Additional provisions of the Senate bill include:

  • Establishing a new system under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, consisting of a statewide network of family resource centers and community-based services for families and children requiring assistance;
  • Requiring school districts to establish truancy prevention programs that would be offered to habitually truant students before referring them to juvenile court;
  • Allowing requests for assistance to be filed by parents/guardians, police officers and schools;
  • Prohibiting children requiring assistance from being placed in shackles or confined in a court lockup in connection with any request for assistance;
  • De-stigmatizing the process by deleting the “CHINS” label;
  • Mandating that a law enforcement officer may only take a child into custodial protection if the child either disobeyed a summons or if the officer has probable cause to believe the child has run away from home and will not respond to a summons; and
  • Requiring the probation department to report on the services provided by probation officers to children and families who require assistance.

In 2005, Spilka launched a task force to explore the Commonwealth’s and other states’ practices and laws around the CHINS system. More than one hundred individuals participated in this effort including legislators, advocates, organizations, and children and families involved in the system. In 2007, Spilka and lead House Sponsor, Representative Paul Donato (D-Medford), filed legislation to reform the system, based on the recommendations of the task force and the best practices of Massachusetts and other states.

The bill unanimously passed the Senate on July 14, 2011 and the House passed its version yesterday. Senate President Therese Murray also named Senator Jennifer Flanagan (D-Fitchburg) and Senator Michael Knapik (R-Westfield) to the conference committee.