Report Calls for Major Changes to “Child Requiring Assistance” System
Above, Norfolk County Juvenile Court, located in Dedham, MA
The Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Policy and Data (JJPAD) Board released a major policy report today with recommendations for improving the way the state provides support to families who are struggling with their child’s behaviors, such as truancy or repeatedly running away from home. The report can be viewed at: https://www.mass.gov/doc/improving-massachusetts-child-requiring-assist…
Under current law, parents and schools can file a petition with the Juvenile Court alleging that a child “requires assistance” from the court to help address behavioral concerns. This triggers a civil court process involving the child, their family, their respective attorneys, the Juvenile Court, the Probation Department, and, at times, the Department of Children and Families. In this report, the JJPAD Board makes a series of recommendations designed to shift a significant portion of these cases away from the court room and instead to serve children and families through school- and community-based services.
Massachusetts last made reforms to this system in 2012, following passage of “CHINS Reform” legislation that created what is now called the Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) system. The Board found that although there were positive changes as a result of the 2012 law, including most notably the creation of Family Resource Centers, the overarching goals of the 2012 reforms have not been fully realized, and many of the concerns with the former system remain today in the CRA system.
“Over the last decade, our approach as a Commonwealth toward addressing the needs of children and families has evolved. A growing body of research has helped us better understand the negative impact that court involvement and out-of-home placement of any kind can have on youth, and our state has increasingly focused on building our system of school- and community-based supports for children and families,” said Maria Mossaides, Director of the Office of the Child Advocate and Chair of the JJPAD Board. “These positive changes provide us a critical opportunity to re-imagine the Commonwealth’s CRA system and create a process that better meets the needs of children and families in need of support.”
The report is the culmination of a two-year research process, which included interviews with over 90 stakeholders, presentations from a variety of experts, a case file review, four focus groups with caregivers, a review of Massachusetts’ and other states’ policies, and an analysis of available data. Key takeaways include:
There is no shared understanding of what the current CRA system is for and what a CRA court filing can (and cannot) accomplish, leading to misinformation and misunderstandings at every level.
The system operates with significant differences in different parts of the state with varying degrees of implementation of the statutory requirements and inconsistencies in practices across counties, school districts, courts, and area offices.
There are disparities in how the CRA system is used and who is referred to it. For example, data reported over five fiscal years (FY18-FY21) shows both Black and Latino youth were three times more likely to have a CRA filing than white youth in Massachusetts.
Barriers to accessing services outside the court process push families to the CRA system – despite the potential harms of court involvement.
The Juvenile Court has limited response options available, and does not have access to services that are not otherwise available in the community. For example, the Court is unable to move a child up a waiting list for a service or order a state agency to provide a service the child would not otherwise be eligible for. Although the CRA court process is at times helpful in bringing stakeholders together to solve challenges, such as for youth with complex needs that require multiple agency involvement or youth who can benefit from access to an educational legal advocate, a court process is not necessarily required for these functions to occur, and there is no statutory reason they couldn’t be performed outside a court room.
"Families come to the Juvenile Court through a CRA petition desperately seeking help, and judges, probation officers, and attorneys do their best to provide that help with the options they have available. But a court process – which can be adversarial – is simply not the best way to address what are often complex behavioral health needs, learning disabilities, and/or family conflicts,” said Melissa Threadgill, Director of Strategic Innovation at the Office of the Child Advocate. “As a state, we must take action to bolster our school- and community-based supports and divert as many families away from the court process as possible.”
To better serve children and families, the JJPAD Board offers multiple recommendations to improve the CRA system, including steps to:
Shift a significant portion of the CRA cases away from the court room and toward school- and community-based services instead.
Increase the availability of school and community-based services that specifically meet the needs of youth currently in CRA system.
Continue to study implementation of these recommendations by increasing data availability and monitoring the implementation of policy changes.