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How truancy lands some Illinois students in court

Winnebago County Juvenile Justice Center
Winnebago County Juvenile Justice Center

A few years ago, Darwin says it was hard to picture a future for themselves. It’s an upsetting thought for anyone, let alone someone just barely starting high school.

“I'm just gonna, I guess, work and work,"they said, "until I have nothing left."

It was a really hard time. Their grandmother was very sick. Their mother was struggling with mental health issues, and then the pandemic hit. Darwin was pretty much on their own for nearly a year without a parent providing food for them. And they had missed a few hundred days of school dating back to middle school.

“In the beginning," they said, "the reason why I chose not to go to school was because there was a family member who would scare me."

They would go to school regularly for a month or so, then things at home would take a turn again. At some point, they missed so much school and were so behind on assignments, it felt like there was no chance they’d catch up. So, what’s the point? The school offered tutoring, but they had no ride to get there.

When students miss a lot of school without a valid excuse, Some find themselves tangled up in truancy or educational neglect court. Darwin’s case started off in family court, but was eventually transferred to truancy court.

Meghan Hawkinson is the director of at-risk student services at the regional office of education covering Boone and Winnebago counties. She has a team of attendance interventionists, and they also refer students to the State’s Attorney's Office for educational neglect and truancy cases like Darwin’s.

“Truancy is a symptom,” she said. “I would say maybe 1% of the cases are kids that just don't care and don't want to go to school. There's almost always some sort of underlying issue of what's going on.”

Truancy typically involves older students, while educational neglect focuses on a parent or guardian not providing education to their younger child.

It’s her team’s job to peel back the layers and to find those underlying issues. Like an onion, you might peel back one problem and discover another. A housing issue might have an addiction or domestic violence issue hidden underneath.

Across two counties, Hawkinson has 800 kids on her caseload, but less than 10% end up in court. Most get resolved quickly. But she sits in court every other week, answering education questions from the judge and giving a report on what the child’s attendance has been since the last time they were there.

Not every county refers students to court this way, but Hawkinson says Winnebago tries to be proactive in getting them back into the classroom.

Every student in a truancy case is appointed a Guardian Ad Litem. They’re an attorney who is supposed to act in the best interest of the minor, as opposed to a lawyer simply representing a client.

Steven Whitmore is a Guardian Ad Litem for the Winnebago County juvenile courts.

“I have the entire educational truancy call. And then I also have other abuse and neglect cases that also happened to occur in my courtroom,” he said. “Sometimes the two cases bleed together, where one of my educational cases will turn into an abuse and neglect case.”

He currently has 300 cases. 200 in abuse and neglect and 100 in truancy. Whitmore says Winnebago County has the 2nd-highest volume to Cook County.

By the time a youth makes it into his courtroom, they've already had at least three attempts at a meeting as well as a home visit by the truancy interventionist. Whitmore does home visits too and he’s built up a bank of fidget toys to make kids feel less anxious.

He says he deals with a lot of school-based anxiety, especially with the pandemic. The judge is able to order counseling or for the parent to request an Individualized Education Plan evaluation.

“I wish there was more access to counseling for kids who are struggling," he said. "We run out of counselors very quickly.”

In a vast majority of cases, the child stays with their parents. But that was not the case with Darwin. The judge was able to put Darwin into the care of their older cousin, who adopted them this year.

It took over a year, but Darwin was able to move in permanently and switch school districts. It was a big challenge, but they had more support this time. Now, they’re going into their senior year of high school and -- after lots of summer school and credit recovery -- are on track to graduate on time.

“You will cry, you will get pissed, and you will have all these emotions coming at you and you will have no idea what to do,” they said. “But really, it's a lot easier than it seems. You just have to believe.”

The truancy court process worked out for Darwin, but it’s a stressful process. Some cases take years. And although they had some helpful social workers and truancy officers, their adoptive mom says many people at their old school didn’t take the time to really understand why Darwin was missing so much school.

If more people there had taken an interest in finding out that Darwin’s basic needs weren’t being met -- they might have gotten on the path back to success even sooner than they did.

Peter is an award-winning education reporter who has been at WNIJ since 2018. He’s also the host of Teachers’ Lounge: a listener-driven podcast & radio show telling the story of education through conversations with teachers and students. He grew up in Sandwich, Illinois, and graduated from North Central College. When he’s not writing & reporting, Peter loves to run at forest preserves across northern Illinois, cook, & hang out with his cat.