Cloudy
58°
Cloudy
Hi 71° | Lo 52°

Changes to New Hampshire Child Services Program Might Have to Wait

Concord — When funding for the state’s primary system connecting at-risk children and their families with a broad range of social services was rolled back two years ago, the result was immediate and dramatic, according to law enforcement, educators and service providers.

With support from Gov. Maggie Hassan and both houses of the Legislature, the Children in Need of Services program, known as CHINS, is likely to be restored, but many child advocates see this as an opportunity to improve the program, which they say needed changes even before being shrunk.

Those opposed to making immediate changes argue it will increase costs beyond what’s allotted for the program. Hassan set aside $8.2 million per year for the program in her proposed budget, close to $3 million less than funding prior to the cuts.

CHINS is a petition process allowing courts to intervene with children determined likely to become delinquent, but in 2011 it was narrowed to serve only children with severe mental problems or who pose a danger to themselves or the public. That reduced the program’s ranks from about 400 at any given time to the current level of 50 to 60.

Kensington police Chief Mike Sielecki said the threat of a court appearance was enough to get most kids to improve their behavior, but that since the cuts, his officers are forced into an unsustainable supervisory role, especially with truants and runaways. Others have complained that the change in scope has removed the teeth from truancy laws. Education Commissioner Virginia Barry said the cuts contributed to an increase in New Hampshire’s high school dropout rate.

The program hasn’t seen major changes in its 34-year existence, and many child welfare workers support a House-passed bill that would reform how the program is administered as early as September.

Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg said in a statement that the governor recognizes the program needs review and backs a proposed study commission to improve the program in the future, but that she has not thrown her support behind changes called for in the House bill. The study commission would look at best practices from around the country and make recommendations in time for lawmakers to act on them within the biennium.

Before the cuts, runaways, truants or children exhibiting serious behavioral problems could receive counseling and rehabilitative services from the state only after a petition had gone to court and a judge required they participate.

Many involved want to make services available to children and their families without having to get a court order. They argue that keeping cases out of the legal system would reduce the burden on backlogged courts bringing costs down. It would also lower the long-term societal costs of involving large numbers of children in the juvenile justice system, they say.

Noah Simonton, 17, said he wishes it had been easier to get mental health services when he went through the program. He was deeply depressed and self-mutilating after his mother abandoned him at 13. He moved back in with his father, but the two clashed.

His father filed a CHINS petition, and a court order landed Simonton in a group home. He bounced around the juvenile justice system for close to 21/2 years, but it was only toward the end of that period that he started seeing a therapist. It was immensely helpful, he said, and he doesn’t understand why it took so long. “In the juvenile court it seems to be more about punishing the child than helping them,” he said, “I was a CHINS kid and I needed help, and it really felt like the court system failed me.”

Noah recently earned his GED and is living with his father again. He is looking for jobs and thinking about applying to college. After learning that close to two-thirds of children placed in group homes or detention facilities end up homeless, in jail or dead, he decided sharing his story might help people understand the importance of reforming the juvenile justice system.

He testified at a hearing in favor of the House-passed bill that would make services, like the therapy that helped him, available before the court process begins.

The bill would create interdisciplinary teams of mental health professionals, caseworkers and law enforcement to help families access an array services. If a child’s behavior doesn’t improve within 90 days, then the court process would kick in. Advocates say part of the advantage of such a system is it cuts down on redundancies by getting the various agencies, nonprofits, and school and police officials talking to one another about the at-risk youths in their communities.

Marty Boldin, director of Manchester’s Office of Youth Services, has helped create such a program. It has increased the number of families receiving services, while drastically reducing the number of cases going to court.

“Children who enter the juvenile justice system at an early age learn how to survive in that system,” he said. “Those skills don’t transfer into social competencies applicable in everyday life.”

It’s unclear whether so-called voluntary service systems could be created throughout the state with the money budgeted for the program. While proponents contend it would bring down costs, Byry Kennedy, of the Department of Health and Human Services, said voluntary services are an “untested proposition.”

If services are made available on a voluntary basis, Kennedy said, more people will inevitably want them. Some worry it could result in the state being flooded with requests for services, without the court vetting process to ensure neediest get help first.

Dave Lynch, of the Appalachian Mountain Teen Project, which deals with many youths in the program, acknowledged that the requests for services might increase, but said the state would still be the gatekeeper and wouldn’t have to honor every request. He argues that putting the court in charge of treatment options disenfranchises parents and is less likely to achieve a positive outcome.

“By reinstituting CHINS without voluntary services, you’re treating kids, many of whom have mental illnesses, like they’re junior criminals,” Lynch said.