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Editorial: Better ways to help troubled kids

Two years ago, the Legislature eviscerated the state’s Child in Need of Services program, thus dooming some number of the 1,000 delinquent children served every year to life on the streets and a path to prison. Half of those children suffer from a mental illness, behavioral disorder or developmental disability.

The CHINS program was downsized to serve only the 50 most serious cases in the state. That was wrong in human terms and wrong financially. It costs society far less to return truant children to school and give them help than it does to incarcerate them later and lose them as productive citizens.

There is now bipartisan support to restore most of the funding for the program, while simultaneously reforming it. The CHINS program was created a generation ago. Its basic approach, which often ends in incarceration in a juvenile facility or a loss of parental custody, has gone largely unchanged. The program must be reformed to make a sentence from a judge a last resort, not a first choice.

Movements to reform programs to address truancy and juvenile delinquency are under way in many states. Massachusetts began replacing its system last year with a program called FACES, Families and Children Engaged in Services. In short, that state now offers parents with “stubborn” children who won’t attend school or obey reasonable parental orders, or who present a danger to themselves or others, voluntarily receive services from a provider in the community. They only proceed to court if those services are refused or fail to remedy the problem.

House Bill 260 would move New Hampshire’s CHINS program in a similar direction. It would catch hundreds of children before they fall through cracks from which they may never emerge. It won’t meet all the needs of children who would benefit from CHINS services. The Department of Health and Human Services pegs the cost of doing that at $5.5 million per year, while the bill’s services are based on the $4.1 million per year Gov. Maggie Hassan included in her budget for the CHINS program. It does not, for example, include funding for the residential placement of CHINS children unless that placement is ordered by a court. Such placements are costly and are not the best approach in most cases.

The bill is designed as a stopgap measure while a new system is created. The ideal, under any program that emerges from a reform of CHINS, is to keep families intact whenever possible, minimize the loss of parental custody and maximize the amount of services received in the community. Children receiving CHINS services can be ordered to submit to random drug testing, attend school or respect a curfew, for example, in addition to receiving counseling or mental health treatment and otherwise getting the help they need to make good choices rather than bad.

A study committee bill, HB 418, sponsored by Bow Democratic Rep. Mary Beth Walz, is companion legislation. It gives lawmakers, working in concert with children’s behavioral health providers, advocates and the Endowment for Health foundation, until November to learn what other states are doing, hold hearings and report on recommended changes to the system. A hard look at the CHINS program is long overdue.

Cutting the CHINS program never made sense. It burdened families and allowed some kids to be “lost.” Instead of saving money, it shifted costs to schools, law enforcement, the courts and the corrections system. The House supports both bills. The Senate and the governor should as well.

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