by Ann Fowler
Justice of the Peace Susan Steeg is passionate about reducing truancy in Travis County Precinct 3. In 2010 she established the first Juvenile Case Management Program in the county’s justice courts. Michael Gallardo is the program director.
Such a program is a natural fit for Judge Steeg, whose job includes overseeing Truancy Court for students age 12 and above. She said contributing factors for truancy include:
- Family history of truancy
- Housing insecurity/high mobility
- Parental incarceration
The last factor is particularly troubling to Steeg as 101 truant students had parents in jail/prison totaling more than 2,200 days.
Any parent temporarily away from a child can be difficult for that child.
If that parent is away on military duty, the child can take solace in proudly telling his friends about it. Often the returning parent tries to surprise the child in the classroom or some other public setting.
But imagine if that parent has been jailed due to a conviction—or worse, incarcerated awaiting trial. The child is likely too embarrassed to share this information. There will be no ticker-tape parade when that parent returns home.
Gallardo said, “They have to keep it buried deep down inside because the shame and stigma associated with it is so, so great. We teach them that it’s okay to love your mom and your dad, it’s okay to love yourself.” He likened the situation to a bicycle wheel, “If one spoke is off, it changes the alignment of the bicycle.”
According to data from the Texas Criminal Justice System, 72 percent of those in Travis County jails are pre-trial detainees—either they could not pay bail or were not given the opportunity. That could affect 70 of the 101 truants.
Jorge Renaud of Texas Advocates for Justice told the Gazette, “Of the five largest counties, Travis County has the highest rate of non-release of folks eligible for release on PR bond, and no one wants to accept the blame, but that rests with judges.”
Renaud said many local judges are unwilling to collaborate with pre-trial service recommendations to release people on personal recognizance bonds. Even worse are detainees who are too poor to afford bail. Said Renaud, “Many can’t afford the $1,000 or so that takes, so they sit in jail.”
He added, “How does this impact? My god, how does it not? People can lose jobs in the 17-day-average stay in the county. They can miss a car payment, and since many have gotten their cars from local dealerships, that missed payment could mean being without. They can go into hock with a payday loan company in an effort to stay current, with the incredibly high repayment interest that goes along with that. And it could mean accepting a plea of guilty just to get out, with a felony probation on their record. Children can be stigmatized, and often are, by having a parent in jail/prison.”
Steeg and Gallardo are mindful of this impact on local students. Gallardo works with truant students, their care-givers and incarcerated parents to ensure the child stays in school.
In 2015, Steeg and Gallardo saw significant improvements in attendance after assigning an intern to make weekly calls to assist Williams Elementary School with truancy prevention. In those four weeks, 92 phone calls were made, while five home visits and five conferences were held. The month before the program saw 99 unexcused absences, the month after that number dropped to 24. Unexcused tardy numbers dropped from 283 to 113. Documented illness reports rose from 9 to 58.
This spring, the preventative court assistance program will last 10 weeks, with officials anticipating improved attendance rates for at-risk students.
For some students, missing class early in elementary school can translate into missing learned academic skills that will only compound the child’s problems as he is socially promoted.
Gallardo said he works with the family to get the child into a school that will help, such as the Austin Can Academy.
In addition, he has the student perform experiential activities, like donning a backpack with a single book that represents “stress.” Then more “stress” books are added, showing the student how difficult it can be to carry that stress. He teaches these students how internalizing their fears works against them.
Gallardo said it is important to teach these children that they and their families are still beautiful, despite current, temporary circumstances.
The incarcerated parents find their children fear they may follow that parent’s footsteps into the jail system, so working with the families as a whole will hopefully break that cycle, he explained.
Gallardo said telling a child that he is beautiful, smart and worthwhile instills confidence in the child. Lacking that barometer can make the child turn to drugs or crime.
Gallardo and his interns are working with 18 students. Those 18 students now have a chance at a better life thanks to the truancy prevention program run by people who care to make a difference.