State’s days of CHINSanity over
A little sanity returned to the state’s juvenile justice system this week when Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a bill restoring the program commonly known as CHINS.
It stands for Children in Need of Services, and it was gutted two years ago during the legislative session presided over by a group of Republicans who seemed to believe they were elected to dismantle state government.
For educators and others who regularly encounter and try to help troubled children, CHINS had been the most important tool they had to deal with chronic runaways or truants. Suddenly, the state went from providing services for 1,000 troubled youth a year, to helping only about 50 of the state’s most hardcore adolescent sexual predators or arsonists.
Thanks to legislators who refused to fund the program, the state effectively washed its hands of those kids who fell into that gray area between honor-roll student and aspiring career criminal.
Let the parents deal with it, said lawmakers in the majority, who also tried to take a similar approach with another age group, but were ultimately shouted down by advocates for the state’s elderly.
Unable to turn to the CHINS program, parents whose children chronically ran away or refused to attend school had nowhere to turn. Educators – who had relied on CHINS to get court-ordered services – no longer had that option in most cases, especially since the community mental health system was also gutted. They had to seek help from police, whose only recourse – absent the commission of a serious crime by a child – was to charge parents with failure to carry out their obligation to get their child to school.
But the kids? Gutting CHINS meant they had a get-out-of-school-free card, and it didn’t take long before they knew it.
“Those kids are smart and figured out the police did not have recourse there,” said Rep. Mary Beth Walz, D-Bow, who chairs the House Child and Family Law Committee.
“There was such an outcry from families, from schools, from the police, from advocates … it’s really been a constant outcry,” John DeJoie, a consultant with the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire, told The Telegraph. “And frankly, once you see communities with no options other than to bring parents to court whose kids are truants, I think that showed legislators that something needed to happen.”
The law that Hassan signed this week isn’t industrial-strength by any means, but at least it’s a start. It requires the state to offer parents assistance prior to court intervention and promises to expedite the process so that it won’t take months for a child’s needs to be met.
The law also creates a legislative committee to study the CHINS program and come up with recommendations for changes by Nov. 1.
Most importantly, the law means the state will again play a meaningful role in caring for those residents who – for better or worse – represent the future of our state.
We think it’s for the better. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it could be worse.