Families of runaway or truant children would find support through local resource centers designed to help families solve problems without having to go through juvenile courts, under a bill approved last week by the Massachusetts Senate.
The measure would eliminate the state’s current Children in Need of Services system, which requires children to appear in court and sometimes deters families from getting help, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said.
The bill would create a new system that would steer families to local support centers that would provide counseling, mental health treatment, special education evaluations, after-school programs and tools for parents to help work with their child.
“The focus is keeping families together as a unit as much as possible in a much more coordinated, comprehensive, efficient, effective basis in their own communities,” Spilka said.
Under the proposal, the community-based centers would be rolled out over four years at an estimated cost of $300,000 in staffing the first year. Supporters say costs would be offset by savings to the state’s public counsel system.
The House is expected to vote on the legislation this week.
Although children can take advantage of similar programs under the current system, a runaway or truant child now must appear before a juvenile court judge if his or her parent wants to receive help from the state. School officials can also refer students to the juvenile court if they are habitually truant.
The court can then refer the child to counseling or rehabilitation programs. In some cases, the judge can order the child put in a foster home or state run-facility.
Spilka said having to go to court to get services can deter or delay families from getting help.
“They [parents] had heard of stories of parents losing custody so they would wait until sometimes it got so bad because they were not getting services,” she said.
Spilka said the current system can be inconsistent, with many service gaps or overlapping services. She said she hopes community-based centers act as a preventative measure, take advantage of current programs and keep families together.