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Off The Radar: Thousands Of Children Chronically Truant Across Connecticut

Off The Radar: Thousands Of Children Chronically Truant Across Connecticut

Hartford Courant, April 13, 2017

By Josh Kovner

Keon Huff Jr., 15, shot to death in a hallway of a north Hartford tenement, and Tywone Edwards, 17, charged in the slaying, shared similar backgrounds.

Both Hartford teenagers were abused or neglected as children. Each had juvenile police records. And they both had a history of chronic truancy. They had fallen off the grid, into a kind of abyss filled with an alarming number of troubled young people who have missed large swaths of the school year, the odds stacking up against them as each aimless week slips by.

A Courant review of state records shows the severity and depth of the truancy problem statewide. From 2014 though the 2016 school year, the state's juvenile court received 8,087 referrals specifically for children who missed substantial amounts of school, records show.

Each referral tells a story of a child struggling woefully, and, very often, a family in crisis. A court referral means the child has defied efforts by schools to find and bring him back. Most of these kids won't end up like Keon, truant for weeks from Hartford's Journalism and Media Academy, on the run from DCF, the police, and juvenile probation in his last days, or Edwards, who dropped out of Hartford Public High School's Nursing Academy in October, and is now charged with murder and facing prosecution in adult court.

But truancy is insidious and self-destructive, and can portend a marginalized life. For some, it starts as early as kindergarten, and a young truant's life can be all but derailed before he is out of the fifth grade, specialists in drop-out prevention said. At the very least, the specialists said, a child with an attendance problem can be tagged as a likely drop-out risk as early as the fifth grade -- and that's a hard label to shake.

Nearly eight out of 10 kids who have missed even 10 percent of school in kindergarten or first grade, won't be reading proficiently by the end of third grade, said Joseph Vaverchak, attendance supervisor for New Britain public schools. And they are behind in math and really everything else," said Vaverchak.

No city comes close to Hartford in the scope of its truancy problem. In 2016, the capital city had 466 truancy referrals to juvenile court, a 37 percent jump from the 2014 total of 319.Hartford's 2016 tally accounted for nearly 19 percent of the 2,525 chronic-truancy referrals received statewide by the juvenile court.

In stark contrast, neighboring West Hartford, had 20 in 2016. The community with a truant-referral tally closest to Hartford in 2016 was Bridgeport, with 285. And Hartford, said judicial officials, had a noticeably high number of court petitions rejected because they lacked documentation that school staff members had done everything they could in those cases to make inroads with a truant child and his or her family.

Joanne Tremblay Jackson, director of support services for Hartford public schools, said effort, time, and money is spent trying to reach every chronically truant student. In many cases, the child is referred to a mental-health program, and the family is provided with links to social services, she said.

"We've had meetings, we've talked to parents, we've attempted home visits, sent letters — and the child is still truant," said Jackson. Complicating matters is that children retreat for many reasons. They could be victims — of bullying, of sexual harassment. Jackson has seen instances in which children were earning top grades one year and were chronically truant the next — and the reason remains a mystery.


Truant system failing back to top

Statewide, the system in place for several decades has failed to get ahead of the problem.

So this summer, Connecticut will transform the way it deals with truancy. No longer will thousands of referrals for truant young people pour into the juvenile court system each year — where the crush of more serious offenses relegate them to a lower priority.

Starting in August, the youth and family programs in local communities will deal directly with chronic truants identified by schools.

Across the state, the local programs are gearing up for new responsibility.

Many of the bureaus believe they can make headway with their local kids, defiant or not. But there is anxiety about funding. Will the state provide enough money to meet the greater demand for services?

"We are going to do this, but the fear is we'll be doing it without the resources," said Justin Carbonella, youth services coordinator for the city of Middletown. The city's youth bureau already has experience working with chronic truants.

Advocates have said for 10 years or more that the juvenile court is no place for these referrals — and even judicial officials don't argue too strenuously with that. Truancy is a status offense, not a crime, and, by definition, is not a court-system priority. Juvenile probation officers call in the truant's family and try hard to get to the bottom of the situation, say Deborah Fuller and Tasha Hunt, two top youth and family officials at the Judicial Branch.

But at the point the family is talking to a probation officer, it's all voluntary. Of the thousands of truancy petitions that come in, only a tiny fraction of the kids, maybe five or less in a given year, actually go up before a judge. Once there, they can be ordered to go to school. If they break that order, they can go to juvenile detention. But it has been a long time since anyone in the juvenile justice system, the schools, or the advocacy community has thought that it's a good idea to lock up kids who haven't committed serious crimes, particularly since many of these children have mental-health and behavioral issues that are screaming out for intensive treatment.

"There's been an evolution — we're trying to get away from the punitive process," said Erica Bromley, consultant to the Connecticut Youth Services Association. She is one of the architects of the coming transformation.

"Kids who touch the court system," she said, "are likely to come back."

At a street-corner vigil on March 19, two days after Keon Huff was killed, the Rev. Henry Brown said the entire community had to step up to address the killing and the social factors surrounding it. In the days afterward, Hartford detectives did indeed receive concrete help from the community as they zeroed in on a suspect.

Now, communities across the state are being directed to step up and take on truancy directly, in a way that they had not been asked to do before.

The change in state law, effective in August, shifts truancy to the youth service bureaus and other youth and family programs in cities and towns. The juvenile court will no longer be the state's repository for the truancy referrals, and schools won't even be allowed to use the petitions for truancy any more.

The task at hand, say advocates and youth-service bureau directors, is to knit together local teams of school, counseling, probation, DCF, police, and mental-health professionals to engage with truant students identified by local schools, and with their families.

"Serving kids in their communities tends to get good results," Bromley said. "When a program is not tied directly to DCF or the court, it's easier to engage families. We can help them navigate the system."

Small towns are considering pooling truancy services, and the larger communities are readying their multi-disciplinary teams.

In New Britain, a group that includes schools, probation and DCF has met weekly for several years, focusing during each session on a different chronically truant child. That team will be there to help the local youth service bureau, said Vaverchak, who co-chairs a statewide panel on attendance issues.

All of the local programs are aware that these children and teenagers have developed a hard shell of defiance. Still, there is a sense of readiness and a belief that locally invested programs are best suited to deal with local children.

"This is the spotlight that youth service bureaus have been waiting for," said Carbonella, whose youth development and leadership programs have gotten statewide recognition. "This is the plan that should have been in place since the 1970s."

But there is anxiety over whether there will be sufficient funding for the extra work. A bill voted upon favorably by the legislature's appropriations committee earlier this week assigns an extra $3 million to 101 youth-service bureaus encompassing 144 communities.

For a youth-service bureau like Middletown's, that might mean $50,000 — perhaps enough to hire another specialist.

"We work well when we have time to build relationships and to follow up," said Carbonella. "The hope is that we're not not just setting up a triage system — that we're not just putting out fires."