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Truancy soars among vulnerable families: Juvenile Court sees fivefold increase in cases

By JOHNETTE MAGNER

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    SHREVEPORT, Louisiana (KTBS) — Truancy rates across the United States have reached alarming levels, with far fewer children regularly attending school when compared to the 2019-2020 school year, which brought the onset of COVID-19.

The surge in truancy numbers has also resulted in a staggering increase in the number of truancy cases in Caddo Parish Juvenile Court. During the 2019-2020 school year, 33 parents of children attending Caddo Parish elementary schools received a petition demanding they appear, because their child had a high number of unexcused absences. Just two years later, during the 2021-2022 school year, there were 253 petitions for elementary school parents.

Among parents of middle and high school students, the number of petitions sent to parents skyrocketed as well. There were only 53 in the 2019-2020 school year. But for 2021-2022, there were 311.

Caddo Juvenile Court Judge Natalie Howell sees most of the truancy cases.

“We’ve dealt with all different types of things, children with drug issues, parents with drug issues, the number of house fires that we have encountered startles me,” she said. “I also see undiagnosed mental illness, undiagnosed learning disabilities, homelessness.”

With most cases, Howell does not incarcerate the parents. Instead, she requires the family work with a case worker from the Families in Need of Assistance group, known as FINS.

“Throwing a mother in jail is not going to solve the problem,” said Caddo Superintendent Lamar Goree. “These judges are working with the school system. They’re working with the District Attorney’s office. They’re working with our community partners around what are those things that we can do.”

Marcayla Sicks is an example of the efficacy of FINS program. In the spring of 2022, she missed close to 40 days of school. She was depressed after enduring a series of devastating losses.

Both of her aunts, whom she considered second mothers, succumbed to COVID-19 within an hour of each other in January 2022. Her father passed away from the same virus in March, followed by her grandmother in May.

Overwhelmed by grief and battling the constant fear of COVID-19, Marcayla quit attending Northwood High School.

“I honestly did not know that my child was struggling the way that she was,” said Kimbrly Thomas, Marcayla’s mother. “And if it wasn’t for him … I don’t want to say it … but if it wasn’t for him … I probably would have had a child take her own life.”

The man to whom Thomas is referring to is Demetrius George, the caseworker with the FINS program who was assigned by the courts to work with Marcayla. With the support of George, Marcayla was able to get back on track, and she graduated from Northwood High School this spring.

But not all cases end this way.

“You can spend contempt days in jail. We did have an operation earlier in the year. … Nobody wants to do this … but we had kids that were two and three years chronically truant, and parents really not being a part of the solution,” said Clay Walker, Caddo Parish juvenile services director. “So we put together a short list of parents needing that kind of attention. … We have put some parents in jail.”

The truancy data for the 2022-2023 school year has not yet been compiled and released. But those tasked with handling truancy cases, from the school level to the court system, believe the numbers are slowly beginning to trend down.

Chief Deputy Assistant District Attorney Wilbert Pryor has this message for parents: “There are real criminals out there. There’s limited jail space. We just want you parents to see the light. We assume you care about your kids, love your kids. Get them in school, get them off the streets, and get them on grade level in the skills they will need to stay in school.”

Note: The next installment of the Skipping School investigative series will look at soaring truancy numbers among elementary school kids and the work underway by Volunteers for Youth Justice (VYJ) to bring those numbers back down. You will also meet a homeless mother, with no running car, who had no way to get her child to school until VYJ and the Caddo Parish School System stepped in to give her the help she needed.

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