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CHINS, Child in Need of Services, is a legal term used in the juvenile court system where the courts are asked to step in to assist a child who is at risk. A child who is seen as being at risk is most often one who repeatedly runs away from home, is frequently truant from school, or is consistently defiant of the rules of their home and/or school.

A CHINS petition can be filed by parents in a situation where they feel they can no longer control or monitor the behavior of their children, who put themselves at risk of harm. In many of these cases, children, mostly in their teenage years, regularly fail to return home, are openly defiant and may be involved in drug or alcohol abuse. Filing a CHINS petition is a last resort measure for parents because it gives authority over the child to the court system rather than the parents. Sometimes parents who file such a petition are genuinely concerned about the welfare of their child and feel they are not able to protect their child. At other times, the parents may not be equipped to help or protect their child due to their own problems. Sometimes they just want to get them out of the house because they are annoyed by them.

A CHINS petition may also be filed by the school system when a child is frequently truant and openly defiant and the school believes the parents are unwilling or unable to step in and deal with the problem. One may also be filed by police if a child is a runaway and they feel they are at risk in the home environment or are a risk for habitual running.

Once a CHINS petition is filed, a child is assigned a probation officer and sometimes a lawyer, depending on the severity of the situation. They will be asked to sign an agreement, usually involving required school attendance, a strict curfew and compliance with a number of rules that parallel adult probation. If they violate the agreement, they may be taken out of the home by the courts and placed into state care. They will have to appear before a judge, who will determine placement of the child and what is required of the child before he or she can return to the home environment and have the CHINS petition lifted.

In some cases the home environment will be investigated by social services to determine if it is a safe environment for the child. Allegations of abuse and neglect will be looked into as, under ideal conditions, the child will learn to live in a structured environment while reasons for the child's rejection of authority or unwillingness to stay in the home environment are evaluated. In a disturbingly large number of cases, a habitual runaway faces regular physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse in the home environment and has nowhere to turn, thus he or she runs away. The reasons are not always obvious. In one case I am aware of, no one could understand why a certain girl frequently ran away from home. Her home environment was stable, she was well cared for, and had no problems with school or with drugs and alcohol. It only recently came to light that her father "helps her" in the shower.

Sometimes a child is simply defiant due to influences of his/her peer group, but there are usually underlying causes for the behavior of children who reach the point of needing to be under the supervision of state social services.

In many cases, CHINS is a "last warning" before children enter the heart of the justice system, an education in the process and how they will surrender their freedoms and their youth if their behavior and actions continue in a downward spiral. It is sort of like being in the court system without having any charges against you. It can be a wake-up call for those who put themselves at risk through their defiance and disregard for rules and authority. It can also be an eye-opener for those who work in the system as what really goes on behind the closed doors of the home environment become exposed.

Be good to your children.

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