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N.H. lawmakers looking at options to rebuild CHINS program

One of the most controversial cuts to the state budget passed in 2011 was a program that provided services to truants, runaways and other children with behavioral problems, to intervene before their wrongdoing could escalate to criminal behavior.

The Children in Need of Services, or CHINS, program served about 1,000 kids a year. Now, with reduced funding and a limited scope, it handles only the 50 or so most serious cases, children with severe and diagnosed mental illnesses or other issues who are considered dangerous.

New Hampshire lawmakers are looking to rebuild the program, but there isn’t consensus on how to do it. A number of bills are pending, including a couple going before House committees today for public hearings – one would restore the old program guidelines and appropriate $4.1 million a year for it, while the other would create a study committee to craft an improved program that could be enacted in 2014.

“I know it’s going to be very hard for the (House) Finance Committee to find money . . . but we had it before, and I think we ought to find it again,” said Rep. Laura Pantelakos, a Portsmouth Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill that would restore the money. “When we say a child in need, we mean a child in need, and we need to take care of them. Just one little helping hand can help put them on a straight path.”

And separate from those efforts, Gov. Maggie Hassan could restore money for the program in her budget, which she will present Feb. 14.

“Gov. Hassan believes that the CHINS program has provided important services to help at-risk young people throughout our state,” said spokesman Marc Goldberg, who added that Hassan “is currently working to make the difficult decisions needed to balance the state budget while protecting our priorities, including providing access to critical services for children and families.”

Where CHINS went

The CHINS program was aimed at troubled children who weren’t yet in the criminal justice system but seemed to be headed in that direction. They skipped school or ran away from home. Their parents had trouble controlling them. Often, they had developmental problems or mental illnesses.

The program allowed police officers, school officials or parents to petition to place children under the supervision of a court, with a wide range of services available including counseling or even placement in a group home.

And there was a broad definition of kids who were eligible for help: those who habitually skip school or run away from home, or a child “who repeatedly disregards the reasonable and lawful commands of his or her parents, guardian or custodian and places himself or herself or others in unsafe circumstances,” or someone who behaves in a way that would be a crime for an adult, or who “is expressly found to be in need of care, guidance, counseling, discipline, supervision, treatment or rehabilitation.”

Then-Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, proposed cutting the program in the 2012-2013 state budget. The Legislature was then controlled by the GOP, and the House proposed eliminating the program entirely.

But the Senate added back money to handle services for the most severe cases, narrowing the definition of a child in need to someone “with a diagnosis of severe emotional, cognitive, or other mental health issues who engages in aggressive, fire setting or sexualized behaviors that pose a danger to the child or others.”

That kept the program alive, and it’s been serving roughly 50 kids over the last year, said Maggie Bishop, director of the Division for Children, Youth and Families. But for other children, she said, local police officers, school officials and parents don’t have the CHINS program as a resource anymore.

“Today, if there’s a child running away, there’s no way to intervene except to bring the child home,” Bishop said. “There’s no court action that can be generated to keep the child home or offer another intervention.”

In 2011, state officials warned that many children in the CHINS program could end up in the juvenile justice system without those services. But Bishop said it’s been difficult to gather hard data on what’s happened since the program was cut.

“We are trying to track this. It’s just hard,” she said. “We had some kids who were CHINS before . . . who have come in as delinquents. We know about that. But what we can’t know is how many kids would have come in and are now delinquents.”

Even so, the anecdotal evidence from local police officers and school officials is striking, said Ellen Fineberg, executive director of the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire.

“There has been an outcry on the part of the police departments and also the school departments, that neither of those institutions . . . have the resources they need to help kids who clearly have some behavioral issues,” she said.

Several ways forward

In the new Legislature, where the Democrats control the House and Republicans have a slim majority in the Senate, the CHINS program is getting a fresh look.

Pantelakos, who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, filed a bill to provide $4.1 million a year in state funding for the program, which officials say would be matched by nearly $3.6 million in federal funds. Her bill would also restore the old, broader definition of a “child in need of services.”

It’s scheduled to go before the House Finance Committee today for a public hearing, starting at 2:45 p.m.

Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat, signed on as a co-sponsor, along with Rep. Gene Charron, a Chester Republican.

But Shurtleff said yesterday he changed his mind after discussing CHINS with school officials and child-advocacy groups, and he now supports creating a study committee instead of restoring the old program.

“They agree the program needs to be restored, but maybe not the way it was before,” Shurtleff said. “The old law was very good, but there are some ways it could be tweaked to make it a better program and perhaps save the taxpayers money, as well.”

Bow Rep. Mary Beth Walz, a Democrat and chairwoman of the House Children and Family Law Committee, has introduced a bill to establish a committee to “study and develop a program to address children in need.”

The panel of four representatives and one senator would submit its report by Nov. 1, in time to introduce legislation for the 2014 legislative session.

Walz’s bill will go before her committee today, at 11 a.m., for a public hearing. (The committee will also hold a hearing on a separate bill, introduced by Farmington Republican Rep. Joe Pitre, that among other things would also create a CHINS study committee.)

If a study commission were created, Walz said yesterday, there are discussions about also making a temporary fix to the law, something that would allow local police and school officials to handle cases in the meantime.

But Pantelakos said she’s not thrilled with the idea of appointing a committee instead of restoring the money.

“This is my 18th term,” she said, “and I’ve seen many study committees. And nothing has ever been done. . . . If you want to study it as we put the money back in, that’s a great way to do it. But believe me, if we don’t finance it this year, we will never finance it.”

Bishop, the head of DCYF, said she’s not sure yet what the best solution is for the CHINS program. But, she said, she’s discussing that question with advocacy groups and officials, and hopes to have an answer in the next month or so.

“The definition before was so broad, and I don’t definitely know that it needs to be that broad,” Bishop said. “But I know we need the ability to serve those kids who are engaged in risky behavior. . . . I am looking at it myself, and I’m not sure I’ve made that decision.”

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

Some common sense! Heading off trouble is always better for the system.

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