Stanislaus County court used as tool to keep kids in school

jjardine@modbee.comJune 1, 2013 

— Monday morning, a Stanislaus County Superior Court judge likely will dismiss charges against an Oakdale woman, and Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley couldn't be happier about it.

Really? Don't prosecutors pride themselves on getting convictions?

In this particular case, Shipley is thrilled because it means the defendant is making an honest effort to become a better person and better parent. And that means a new approach to combat truancy is taking effect.

Shipley is using the courts as leverage and-or motivation to compel parents to keep their school-age children in school. It's really pretty simple, she contends.

"If a kid stays in school, chances are that I won't be dealing with him in criminal court when he grows up," Shipley said. "It's not always that (the parents) don't understand the value of school. They don't understand the value of parenting."

Too many absences and the Education Code allows authorities to cite the parent or parents. Also, the Welfare and Institutions Code puts the onus on the parents to control their children, or risk having them become wards of the state.

Shipley works with various school attendance review boards (SARBs), which monitor children who are truant or habitually tardy.

Sharma Uma, SARB specialist for the Stanislaus County Office of Education, said the county, Modesto City Schools and other districts collectively issue about 100 citations each year, usually after sending three letters asking the parents to address the problem from the home.

After that, school officials will meet with parents and the children, and then it goes to review panels.

"Parents are given directives to get the kids to school," Uma said.

Among parents who have criminal convictions, keeping their kids in school can become a term of probation.

Help and counseling are made available through agencies including Sierra Vista Child & Family Services, the Center for Human Services, Child Protective Services, the public health nurse, probation and the Sheriff's Department.

"These are the truancy cases, chronic ones in which there are a couple of years of education impacted on these kids," Uma said. "We try to work with the family as a whole."

"You do see a turnaround," Shipley said.

Among some. Others ignore the message out of laziness, neglect, apathy or because they have lost control of their children. In the past, prosecutors might sit in on review board meetings and tell the children that if they don't go to school, their parents could pay a price.

"You'd say, 'We're going to send your mom to jail,' and the kid would start crying," Shipley said.

Subpoenas now give teeth to what once was mostly an idle threat. The children are sometimes required to attend the hearings, and judges don't hesitate to reprimand them and their parents.

But unlike in other prosecutions, punishment is the last resort instead of the goal. The court works with the parents to get them to attend counseling sessions. Consequently, there is a collaboration of sorts between the prosecutors and defense attorneys because the primary objective is to get children back into school.

The case due back in court Monday is a prime example. The Oakdale woman faces five infractions because her children were not attending school. An additional criminal charge, Penal Code Section 270.1, applies because the children are in grades kindergarten through eight.

The children's father died, Shipley said. Mom began having mental problems.

"She heard voices telling her not to send the kids to school, that it was too dangerous," Shipley said.

The mom eventually checked herself into Doctors Behavioral Health Center in Modesto, but it took a court filing to force her to address the parenting issues. The oldest child ended up in juvenile court and is now in a placement program.

The other children returned to school because their grandfather stepped up to take control.

"He's helped tremendously," Shipley said. "She's (the mom is) doing well now. The kids are going to school. We're dismissing the case — the infraction and the misdemeanor."

It's among the first of what Shipley hopes will become the norm.

"I'm telling 'em that if we get compliance, I'll dismiss it," she said.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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