Last resort against truancy: jailing parents
By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- The 36-year-old mother stood before the judge in a dim courtroom. Her crime: not sending her 9-year-old son to school.
The key witness against her: Hillsborough County school social worker Pat Crosby. Since kindergarten, Crosby said, the boy had missed more than 300 days of school -- nearly two years' worth.
This January day wasn't Abby Mandlow's first time before Hillsborough County Judge Joelle Ober. Months earlier, standing in the same spot, Mandlow had been put on probation and told she must keep her son in school.
Now, Mandlow was back, and the judge wanted to know about three more days her son had missed in the fall -- a violation of her probation.
"I can't recall those days, but I guess it was my responsibility," Mandlow said, rattling off a list of excuses: chronic tonsillitis; strep throat; housing issues; problems with the boy's father.
"I promise, he will not miss not one day, not one more day," Mandlow begged the judge. "I have learned my lesson, ma'am. Please, two weeks, ma'am."
"You going to jail is going to do absolutely nothing for your child, and it's not going to help anybody at all," Ober replied. "But I'm telling you, I don't know what else to do."
The mother was found guilty of violating her probation for misdemeanor failure to ensure school attendance, handcuffed and whisked off to the Hillsborough County Jail for 60 days.
While cases like Mandlow's aren't exactly common, most Tampa Bay area counties have jailed a handful of parents for educational neglect of elementary-age children. Dozens more have been placed on probation.
Last year in Hillsborough County, 37 parents were prosecuted, and four went to jail. The year before, of the 42 parents charged, two ended up behind bars.
Numbers are similar in Pinellas County, where 62 parents were charged and two were jailed last year. Thirty-six were charged and 14 jailed the year before.
School officials and prosecutors say charging parents is a last-ditch effort in a long process of getting problem parents to make school a priority.
"It's important for every child in America to have an education," said Sandra Spoto, a bureau chief with the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office. "Not only that, but it's the law."
State law requires all children between the ages of 6 and 16 to attend school regularly. While charges can be filed against parents if a child has a minimum of five unexcused absences in a month or 10 absences over 90 days, typically only the most egregious cases go to court. Those are cases of children who have missed dozens -- even hundreds -- of school days.
School officials and prosecutors say they intervene because they know a child's success in school is directly linked to success -- or failure -- later in life.
And, they stress, they don't haul parents into court on a whim.
"It never has to get to that point," said Hillsborough probation officer Helena Green. "The School Board is willing to work with them, even something as simple as getting them an alarm."
Eva Marie Rosario of Tampa resents the bad parent label.
Two years ago, Rosario, 36, spent six days of a 30-day sentence in jail after her 15-year-old son had missed more than 560 days of school since kindergarten. She was also charged with allowing some of her other five school-age children to have excessive absences.
She blamed her children's illnesses and her own depression.
"It's not that I don't value education," Rosario said. "I value education a lot. There were certain situations in my life."
That said, Rosario said she wishes the schools and the courts would more compassionately consider each family before prosecuting parents.
"They should base it on the situation the parent is going through and not put everyone in one pot -- 'Oh they're bad parents,' " she said. "I know parents who don't give a damn. I'm not one of them."
Like Rosario, many parents give a lot of excuses, said Barbara Jacobs, a Pinellas County assistant state attorney.
Some that Jacobs recalls from over the years: "We just can't get up that early. I've got too many children. I've got financial problems. I'm a single parent. I don't like the smell of the school. "I always explain, if it happens a couple times in a school year, no one would say anything to you," Jacobs said. "But when you have a different excuse every second or third day, that's when it gets to be too much."
One common excuse is head lice. Since it can take hours to remove the eggs from a child's hair and wash all the household linens, some parents can't seem to manage.
In 1998, Kimberly Nora Barbey of St. Petersburg was jailed after her third-grade daughter missed 161 days of the 180-day school year. The girl showed up at school repeatedly with head lice and was sent home.
Whatever the reasons for a child's chronic absenteeism, Crosby, the Hillsborough social worker, said it usually comes down to families that don't value an education who get sidetracked by life's struggles.
"They don't understand that we all have problems, but you still keep going," she said.
It takes time to get to the point of facing a judge.
Many school districts start sending letters to parents after a child has had a string of unexcused absences. They follow up with conferences that include social workers and prosecutors.
If the warnings are ignored, the next step is often court.
For the bulk of the parents, their children's attendance improves once they've been before a judge.
But if they fail to meet the conditions of probation -- getting their children to school -- that's when some parents find themselves behind bars.
"We don't want them in jail," Green said. "We just want them to understand their kids cannot learn if they aren't in school."
Unlike older children who intentionally skip school and can be dealt with in juvenile court, younger students rely on their parents to send them to school.
Nancy Zambito, Pinellas County's director of school operations, said the goal is to intervene early so students can get into the habit of attending school. If not, they could begin skipping school in middle and high school, and eventually drop out altogether.
"Some parents think elementary school is only about cutting, coloring and pasting," she said.
A recent study in Rochester, N.Y., showed that students with the best school attendance performed better in school. Another in Minneapolis found that attendance was a better predictor of test scores than poverty.
The research is clear that people without high school diplomas are more apt to become teen parents, enter the criminal justice system and earn less as adults.
"That's enough reason alone for society to make sure students attend school and make sure they graduate," said Mike Griffith, policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Colorado.
The focus on attendance is even greater now with Florida's emphasis on standardized testing and school accountability. If children aren't in school, how can they do well on tests?
Once children miss many days of school, they often fall behind. Some begin exhibiting behavior problems as their absences grow. Others have to repeat a grade.
That was the case with Iva Lorraine Whitlock's children. In 1997, the St. Petersburg woman was jailed for four days after her 8-year-old daughter was absent for 189 days over three years.
The girl had to repeat second grade because of the frequent absences.
As a judge, Ober said she knows truant children could be beginning a life of criminal behavior. She also understands the struggles of many of the parents who stand in her courtroom.
"I can see as a judge the value of an education," she said. "It's best for the kids even though it may not be best for the parents."
-- Information from Times files was used in this report. Times researcher John Martin contributed. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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