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After A Funding Cut, CHINS Program Is Back

Sheryl Rich-Kern

  Two years ago, legislators cut the budget for the Children in Need of Services program.  Only kids with severe emotional problems could receive help.

That left parents and parole officers with few resources to prevent kids from running away from home or skipping school.

But a new law restores the program , although in a slightly different form.

Unlike in previous years, families in conflict don’t have to go to court to receive social services.

State officials and child advocates are keeping a close watch on how the process unfolds.

The state-run Children in Need of Services - or CHINS – program, once served a thousand kids.

But when lawmakers scaled it back, the number of kids the state could serve dropped to 50.

David Villiotti, directs a residential facility for troubled youth in Nashua.

"There was a mass exodus, from 43 kids to 28 or 29, in the summer of 2011, for kids that were placed with us."

At the time Villiotti says the Nashua Children’s Home could only accommodate the type of kids who, for example, broke into people’s homes.

He remembers telling a board member:

"It’s the kids that stay out all night and don’t break into people’s homes, that we can no longer do anything about."

Back then, without CHINS fully in place, Villiotti says kids had to commit a crime to receive social services.

"What was really too bad was that a lot of youth receiving counseling services had their services cut, and now the bulk of those services are restored, and that’s a good thing."

As of September 1, the goal of the CHINS program is to reach kids before they have severe emotional issues.

But for some, it’s a little too late.

"This is when he first came to live with me. He was making this bus."

Judy Lavoie of Goffstown sits at her kitchen table and looks at the photos of her grandson Michael.

Lavoie took him in two years ago after the then nine year-old Michael could no longer stay with other family members.

"This is when we went to the fair last year. He entered a pie-eating contest and he won first place. SRK: He looks happy there. Lavoie: Oh, he was very happy."

And at first, Michael thrived in Lavoie’s home. He got good grades. He made friends.

But over time, efforts to provide a stable home were not enough to ease the trauma from years of neglect and domestic violence.

"He started running away from home. One minute he was compliant, and the next minute, he was yelling and saying he wanted to run away because I asked him to do chores. If I didn’t give him a snack, he threatened us, yelled at us. It was very chaotic because I have other children in the household."

And when Lavoie asked the police or school officials for help, they told her there wasn’t much they could do.

"Their hands are tied. The CHINS petition. Nothing was in place. So I had to just deal with it. And when they changed the law, that’s when I started getting some help."

Earlier this month, Michael went in a children’s psychiatric residence in Concord.

"I wish that they would have had services before now."

Not all kids in the CHINS program land in psychiatric residences. In fact, most are children who need in-home or at-school therapy.

Maggie Bishop directs the Division of Children, Youth and Families.

She says the restored funding puts 5.5 million dollars back into the CHINS program, providing roughly 8.4 million dollars for each year of the biennium.

But the infusion of dollars is not the only improvement.

"This statute change is saying, look, to families, if you’re struggling with issues you think you can resolve with services, and you want those services, not to require them to go down a court track, but instead, require the division (DCYF) to assess families for their ability to work voluntarily."

The hope is that by avoiding the court systems, troubled kids access counseling faster.

And school officials say they can better enforce attendance.

The evidence is in the numbers, says Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad.

"If we look at the difference in an absentee rate for those students who are absent more than 20 days between the years CHINS was in effect and the year it ended, we saw an average increase of 31 percent. In addition to that, within that group of students, the number of days they were absent went up over 50 percent."

The revised program only recently got off the ground.

Democratic State Representative Mary Beth Walz of Bow chairs the House Child and Family Law Committee.

Walz says some state officials worry the funds aren’t enough.

"And there is language in the CHINS bill that allows them to stop providing services if they run out of money."

But caregivers like Judy Lavoie hope that doesn’t happen.

"I’m thankful they got the CHINS back. Because I think it’s going to help a lot of families get the services they need, without things spiraling out of control."

Sheryl Rich-Kern has been contributing stories for NHPR since 2006, covering education, social services, business, health care and an occasional quirky yarn that epitomizes life in New Hampshire. Sherylâââ

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