Sunday 25 September 2016

Courts' truancy crackdown sees 10 parents jailed

Others get heavy fines as children skip school

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Photo: Getty Images/Ingram Publishing
Photo: Getty Images/Ingram Publishing

Ten parents were jailed, nine were fined and five were put on probation for failing or refusing to make their children go to school last year.

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They were among 176 parents who were summoned before the courts in 2015 due to the truancy of more than 100 children, resulting in 24 convictions to date.

In the latest case, a teenage boy and his parents broke down in tears and sobbed uncontrollably in court when a judge sentenced both the mother and father to a month in prison for shirking their legal responsibilities to ensure that their child attend school.

But Judge Desmond Zaiden was having none of it, despite the pleas of the family and their solicitor at Naas District Court on January 27.

"It's mandatory to educate a child," Judge Zaiden said after the 15-year-old boy from Co Kildare begged him not to jail his parents.

"The one month [in custody] is really insignificant compared to the effect the lack of schooling will have on this boy for the rest of his life," he told the court.

He also took issue with the boy being in court for the hearing and not at school.

"That boy should not have been in the court today. It goes to show how irresponsible these parents are," the judge said.

"I've a duty to the kid. I've given them every chance. This is in the best interest of the welfare of the child," he added.

His sentiments were echoed last week by Ennis District Court Judge Patrick Durcan, who threatened to jail the parents of a 14-year-old girl whose truancy rate was 78pc. He also told a 13-year-old boy who had attended just 10pc of classes: "If you don't perform, unfortunately your mother will have to go away."

While the heart-wrenching courtroom scenes may sound like something out of a Dickens novel, it's part of a crackdown by the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, over the past decade to get tough with parents who either refuse or fail to ensure that their children attend some form of formal schooling.

The number of summonses issued to date has increased five-fold since the first parents were jailed in two of 34 prosecutions in 2006.

In 2014, 13 parents were jailed and 19 were fined after 150 summonses were issued in respect of 92 truant children. The previous year saw 10 parents jailed and 56 fined after 81 parents were convicted for the truancy of 101 children.

Although the sentences can be for up to a month, in most cases, the parents are released after a day or two.

But Eibhlin Byrne, a former teacher and director of Educational Welfare Services at Tusla, said jail terms are normally imposed in only the most extreme of cases.

And even then, it's seen as the last resort of a process that typically takes place over the course of a year from the time a child misses 20 classes.

"The very last thing we want to do is to bring parents to court," she told the Sunday Independent. "We see conviction as a failure for all of us."

But sometimes, just taking the parents to court with the threat of a jail term, or fines of €634 and subsequent fines of €254 for each day a child is absent from school, is enough to compel them to ensure their children attend school, she said.

"Unfortunately, they are in the minority of parents who wind up in court", she said.

"In one or two cases, it might be a wake-up call," she said.

But by the time the parents have been brought to court, Tusla, the school, social workers and educational welfare officers will have already been through an exhaustive process working with both parents and pupils, she explained.

Social workers will be deployed in cases where a child genuinely suffers from school phobia, a form of separation anxiety or anxiety disorder.

They will also be used to address other issues outside of the family's control, like bullying and homelessness, which is increasingly becoming a challenge for some families who are doing their best to keep their children at the same school, she said.

In rare cases, home tuition can be arranged while parents can also opt to home-school their children once duly registered.

But for many of the extreme cases that wind up in court, the parents typically don't "see the value of education" or have such poor parenting skills that they can't control their children, she said.

"We hope that by bringing them to court, it will impress upon them the importance of a child's education," said Ms Byrne.

Sunday Independent

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