by Carla Benway
A stay-at-home mother of seven children died in a Berks County jail this week. The cause of Eileen DiNino’s death is unknown. The reason for her incarceration is.
Eileen DiNino was jailed because she was poor. She was serving a 48-hour sentence to erase about $2,000 in court costs and truancy fines for several of her children dating back to 1999 that she was unable to pay.
Incarcerating the poor for their inability to pay fines is a real and current issue in America highlighted in a series last month by NPR and in this short documentary by Brave New Films. Berks County, the economically depressed area of Pennsylvania where DiNino lived with her seven children, has jailed more than 1,600 parents since 2000. Two-thirds of them are women.
Maryland, California, Alabama, Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Michigan and North Carolina and other states have also used truancy laws to send parents to jail. Millions of dollars in fines are collected annually for truancy. Parents who end up in jail for truancy are those who can’t afford to pay the court-imposed fines or the risk of harsher sentences that may be imposed through trial.
In a recent example in Arizona, a mother “chose” to accept one day in jail as opposed to going to trial. “If she had gone to trial, it’s a trial by judge, not by a jury, the judge could have chosen whatever. She could have given her the full 15 days.”
Is that a choice, really? How many mothers can risk being away from their children for 15 days?
In some districts, schools receive a portion of the fines collected, incentivizing them to address the issue within the court system. In 2011, for example, Lebanon County School District, a small rural community in central Pennsylvania, collected over $500,000 in one year from criminalizing truancy.
Some of the children were placed in foster care when parents were locked up, and dropout rates rose. The school district was later sued by the Pennsylvania NAACP for ordering parents to pay exorbitant fees–one parent was ordered to pay $27,000 in one academic year. And in case you were wondering, the truancy rate did not change.
St. Clair County, Missouri’s State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly recently said in a truancy case that “[f]ailure to attend school sows the seeds of violence and criminality that plague our community and undermine growth and prosperity…This is a clear case of criminal justice and social justice. So, we must use the admittedly blunt instruments of the law to fight truancy.”
I am not clear on how the “blunt instrument” of parental incarceration is effective at fighting future truancy. Frankly, the research and my own experience suggest the opposite.
In our work at Youth Advocate Programs, Inc., we see many issues affecting school attendance. For some, the challenges are concrete: lack of winter clothing or inability to pay for a bus pass.
For others, it is more complex. The reasons include:
- Older siblings taking care of younger siblings while their parent(s) work because they can’t afford child care
- Youth working to help financially support the family
- Youth with legitimate safety concerns, severe anxiety, or other emotional or learning challenges that find school a hostile or unsafe environment
- Parents with severe mental health needs or addictions that impact their ability to provide the structure and support their children need; and parents who are simply overwhelmed with their various economic and life stressors.
If we fail to understand and address the reason a youth is truant, we will fail to reduce truancy.
In The Importance of Being There: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools, author Robert Balfanz writes that [c]hronic absenteeism…is how poverty manifests itself on school achievement. It isn’t an argument for making truancy criminal.”
Absentee rates are highest in inner-city public schools where larger numbers of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. And Policy Link recently reported that 1 in 5 students in Philadelphia high schools are involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice system and have a higher rate of absenteeism.
The reality is that truant kids, their families and their schools need more resources and practical support to address the root causes of truancy, which are varied, complex and interactional. However, these resources should not be subsidized by poor kids and families.
Subsidizing under-resourced schools through criminalizing truancy is not good policy.
Research supports a more dynamic approach to addressing truancy. Addressing issues within and between the school, the child, the family and the community is most effective at curbing truancy.
What kids and families struggling with truancy really need is support and intervention. And not the kind that brought Eileen DiNino to our collective attention. If we truly want to honor a commitment to social justice and support our kids in academic achievement, we can most effectively do so by extending a helping hand instead of slamming parents behind a locked door.
Carla J. Benway, MSW, Vice-President, Employee and Program Development, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc.