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Children’s Services Restored

N.H. Program  Back in New Form

Concord — Two years after it was all but eliminated by budget cuts, New Hampshire’s Children in Need of Services program is coming back.

The CHINS program that will start Sept. 1, though, isn’t identical to the pre-2011 system that provided counseling and other services to troubled youth. The biggest difference: Parents and children will be able to access services voluntarily, without the need for a court order — though that option will still exist for other truants, runaways and children with emotional or behavioral problems.

Restoring CHINS this year was a priority for Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan and lawmakers from both parties. There was no attempt by either the Democratic-led House or Republican-led Senate to cut money for the program from the two-year state budget that takes effect today.

“There was such an outcry from families, from schools, from the police, from advocates for the last year, year and a half — it’s really been a constant outcry,” said John DeJoie, a consultant with the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire. “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.”

Rebuilding CHINS

The CHINS program for decades provided counseling and support services to children who habitually skip school, run away from home or engage in dangerous behavior, to intervene early before the kids can graduate to adult criminal behavior.

But like a number of other state programs, it saw deep cuts in the last state budget. The GOP-controlled Legislature in 2011 “cut the budget to the bone,” said Michael Skibbie, policy director at the Disabilities Rights Center.

About 1,000 kids a year had been served through the CHINS program, but the cuts reduced it to the 50 or so most serious cases — children with severe emotional or mental health issues who engage “in aggressive, fire setting or sexualized behavior.”

In many cases, advocates said, that left parents, school officials and local police departments without a useful tool to help young people, and they made their voices heard.

“We literally heard an outcry from families, from advocates and from the youth in our communities of the need for the CHINS program,” said Sen. Molly Kelly, D-Keene, on the Senate floor last week.

This year, the Legislature and Hassan worked to rebuild CHINS. Money for the program is spread among several lines in the budget, but Hassan’s office says it totals $8.2 million a year. Hassan signed that budget into law Friday, and it takes effect today.

Separate legislation establishing the legal framework for the CHINS program passed both the House and the Senate with broad support; in its final form Wednesday, it passed on a voice vote in the House and a 24-0 vote in the Senate.

Hassan’s office says she plans to sign the bill into law, and it will take effect Sept. 1.

But “we did not restore it back to exactly what it was before,” said Rep. Mary Beth Walz, D-Bow, chairwoman of the House Children and Family Law Committee.

Under the old program, services could be provided only after a judge approved a CHINS petition that had been filed with the court. That option will still exist, with school officials, parents or police officers eligible to file a petition to get a child help.

But the new CHINS program will also include the option of providing those services voluntarily, with the cooperation of the child and his or her parents and without a court order.

Maggie Bishop, director of the Division for Children, Youth and Families, said the new law effectively requires voluntary services to be tried first, since any court petition must report if voluntary services were or could be tried.

In many cases, that’s appropriate, she said, but she also worries that voluntary services could strain the program’s budget, calling it “a fiscal and resource challenge that we will have to manage.”

The law does include a “circuit-breaker” provision, allowing Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas to suspend voluntary services if there isn’t enough money left to take on additional cases.

“I want to be fiscally responsible,” Bishop said, “but I also want to be responsive to the families that come to our door.”

The services offered for truants, runaways and others are more limited under the new CHINS program.

Out-of-home residential placements, in foster and group homes, will only be available through the court-ordered CHINS process and only if the child is a “habitual runaway” or one of the most dangerous cases.

All in all, Skibbie said, “I think it’s a significant improvement over what we used to have. Certainly making services available to families that need them is a good thing, and it’s also a good thing to not force them to go through a court process.”

More Reforms to Come

Lawmakers have also set the stage for additional reforms next year to CHINS and the state’s broader support system for troubled youth.

DHHS will be required to collect data and make quarterly reports on the number of CHINS cases, the services provided and the related costs.

The department is also charged with studying “potential alternatives uses” for the John H. Sununu Youth Services Center, the juvenile detention facility in Manchester. It opened less than a decade ago with a capacity of 144, but only about 60 beds are in use at any given time.

“The facility is underused, space-wise,” Bishop said, “but we own the facility.”

And a study committee will be set up in August with a broad mandate to “study and develop a program to address children in need.” That could lead to tweaks, or wholesale reform, of the CHINS system.

The panel of five representatives and one senator will issue its recommendations by Nov. 1, in time for legislation to be filed for next year.

“The thought is that we would be able to implement recommendations during the second year of the biennium,” Walz said.