Kids’ truancy lands parents in court, could bite into welfare checks

Print More

Forty-two parents were prosecuted last year for their child’s school truancy, under a program the Board of Education launched after firing truant officers to cut costs. (See Catalyst , May 1994.)

Still, the number of chronic truants—students who have been absent without a valid excuse for 18 or more days—continues to rise, climbing 7.6 percent in 1994-95 to a total of 21,733. The previous year, the number of truants rose 6.7 percent.

Meanwhile, 900 schools statewide, including at least 30 in Chicago, have volunteered for a pilot program that will put into practice a new state law that allows cutbacks in welfare benefits for parents of chronic truants.

Program ‘working well’

In 35 of the 42 cases, parents were placed under court supervision and required to get their child back in school. In most instances, the student’s attendance improved, and supervision was dropped, reports Ernest Grant, director of the the board’s Student Truancy Retrieval Assistance Program (STRAP). In the remaining seven cases, parents failed to show up in court.

Another 21 cases had been sent to the state’s attorney’s office but could not be prosecuted because of legal technicalities.

“The program is working well,” observes Grant. “We’ve improved attendance, and the schools know we’re there to help them. But we still have a long way to go. We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg. At least we’re on the iceberg, though, and not in the water.”

In the rare cases in which the child’s attendance does not improve, STRAP takes the case back to court, Grant explains. The judge typically orders the family to undergo counseling with a social worker to help solve the problem. Only in extreme cases will a parent be fined or taken to jail. “That’s the last thing we want to do,” says Grant. “We’re just interested in getting the youngster back in school, not putting people in jail or getting money from them.”

Before STRAP, truancy cases were mixed in with more serious cases and assigned to judges at random. As a result, they often got little attention. Now, however, truancy cases are heard in a single courtroom and are assigned to one judge. (The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office does not have comparative data on the number of truancy cases from previous years.)

Still, prosecution is difficult because the state’s attorney’s office must prove that the parent willfully allowed the child to remain out of school, says Assistant State’s Attorney Anna Demacopoulus, who handles the cases. “Sometimes, it is the child who simply cannot be controlled,” she adds.

To bolster anti-truancy efforts, the school administration has several options in the planning stage, says Joseph Ruiz, director of student support services. In general, he explains, the new administration’s philosophy is that everyone involved in the schools— teachers, parents, principals, students and the surrounding community— must be held accountable to help deter truancy.

In practice, that means coordinating city and social services with schools. “Agencies are being asked to offer their help, and schools are being told to ask,” Ruiz says.

For one, the school administration plans to set up a computer database that will track information from the Chicago Police Department, the juvenile court system and the schools. Data will include truancy stops, juvenile justice cases and student absences, allowing schools to detect patterns earlier, Ruiz explains. The database also will make it easier for schools to document truancy cases before seeking court action.

The board also wants to train school staff to track down truants, the same day as their absence if possible. And chronic truants may be assigned to alternative schools that are scheduled to open in February.

Also on the drawing board are adjudication panels, comprised of school and social service officials, who will review truancy cases before they are taken to court and look for alternatives to prosecution. For instance, Ruiz points out, the panel might assign a parent to community service instead. Only if the child’s attendance fails to improve would the parent be taken to court.

The most sweeping initiative, however, is a new state law targeting parents of chronic truants who receive public aid. The law requires parents with truant children in grades 1 through 6 to undergo counseling at a social service agency to help improve the child’s attendance. Currently, schools that have volunteered for the pilot program are being paired with agencies that have volunteered.

“We want to work with children before they get into the upper grades, where truancy patterns are more set and parents have less control over the child,” explains Susan Eby, assistant administrator of the Division of Planning and Community Services at the Illinois Department of Public Aid. “During the younger years, the parents have a potentially greater effect on the child’s behavior.”

If the child’s attendance does not improve, the family’s public aid check will be sent to the agency conducting the counseling, which will act as the “protective payee”—thus forcing the family to continue receiving counseling in order to receive its check.

If the child’s attendance does not improve within three months, the School Board will petition the government for a federal waiver in order to withhold the parent’s portion of the check. If the waiver is approved, the state will reduce the check.

“We’re testing the waters to see how it works,” Eby says of the pilot program. “We’re rigorously evaluating the sanctioning portion of the bill; we hope the intervention approach will stop us from having to go to sanctions.”

“It’s time to get parents to be responsible,” says pilot volunteer Louis Hall Jr., principal of Raymond Elementary. About 85 percent of students at this school in the Douglas community on the South Side are in families that receive some type of public assistance, he reports.

Principal Marcia Hartnell of Suder Elementary on the Near West Side agrees. “Parents have traditionally kept their kids out of school for reasons other than sickness, giving them the wrong impression-that school isn’t necessary,” she says. “If we can address these people, then maybe we’ll start seeing their kids in school.”

Social service agencies that have volunteered for the pilot have mixed views. Rosie Mathurin, a parent coordinator at the Elliott Donnelly Youth Center, says some parents have lost control of their children and cannot make them attend school. “We shouldn’t take food out of the children’s mouths because they don’t go to school,” she says. “There should be other avenues. We need to teach parents the importance of education and motivate them.”

Says Milford Wilson, executive director of Accounters Community Center, “It may encourage parents to stress to their kids to go to school. On the other hand, I don’t believe a social service agency should have the responsibility of withholding funds. But I was reassured it will really be used as a scare tactic.”

The new law was sponsored by state Sen. Frank Watson (R-Greenville), chair of the Senate Education Committee, and state Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Troy).

Wisconsin paves way

Using welfare as a stick to prod truants back into school isn’t a new idea. In 1987, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a “Learnfare” bill that required teenage parents on welfare to attend school or have their benefits cut. Before signing the legislation, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson amended it to cover all teenagers eligible for public assistance— thus pressuring parents of truant teens to get them back in school.

The program, which cost Wisconsin about $11.4 million in fiscal year 1995, now covers children from age 8 through age 12; beginning in September 1996, children ages 6 through 7 will be included. The $11.4 million included $2.5 million for family counseling, $2.8 million for child care provided to teen parents so that they could attend school and $2.75 million allocated to local districts for various projects to combat truancy. (No money was appropriated in Illinois.)

However, a 1995 report by the state’s non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau found modest results. The bureau tracked attendance during a single semester of about 1,600 teens covered under the Learnfare program and a similar group of about 1,600 non-Learnfare teens. Only the older Learnfare teens, ages 16 and 17, had better attendance and fewer unexcused absences than their counterparts. For students younger than 16, there was no difference in attendance.