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Anti-truancy cases overwhelm DHHR staff

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Social workers say a new effort led by West Virginia's judicial system to curb the state's growing student truancy problem has overrun them with truancy cases that they're unprepared to handle.

"Before the truancies started, I carried caseloads [of] around 30 or 40," said Shellie Clegg, a former state Department of Health and Human Resources worker in Jackson County. "And then, when we started with the truancy issues, I was bombarded. I just wasn't able to handle it. It wasn't fair to me. The services we provide are not designed for these kids to begin with."

In Jackson County, people across the truancy effort say that in its push to crack down on truant students and their parents, local governments failed to prepare for how spikes in truancy cases would affect DHHR workers.

 "That is our biggest obstacle: They don't have enough manpower," said Phyllis Matheny, attendance director for Jackson County schools. "It's a proverbial cat chasing at its tail. From the school side, I'm pushing, pushing, pushing, to get more truancy cases to court, and then they get sent to Child Protective Services. And CPS is understaffed. They definitely need more workers."

Truancy is a major problem in West Virginia. About one in five West Virginia students -- almost 78,200 -- had five or more unexcused absences last year, according to the state Department of Education. More than 29,000 students, or 9 percent statewide, were truant more than 10 days last year.

The West Virginia Supreme Court launched a major initiative last year to pair up the circuit court system, local school boards and social agencies in a local effort to keep students in school.

Talk to the majority of principals, superintendents, politicians and circuit judges in places with the anti-truancy initiative, and they'll tell you the system is a big success.

"We've had a major reduction in our truancy rate in the last year, and I attribute that in large measure to the court system's effort," said Blain Hess, superintendent of Jackson County schools. "All the people involved have been instrumental in showing that the judicial system has a strong view that students should be in school."

In Jackson County, almost 50 percent of students in the 12-school system were truant five or more days in 2010, according to state data. Last year, the truancy rate dropped by half, to about 25 percent of students missing five or more days of class without an excused absence.

People involved in the anti-truancy initiative say the increased push is clearly creating results, but they admit that, with the way the program is set up, there simply isn't the manpower within DHHR to deal with all the truancy cases.

"There is a problem with the policy itself," Clegg said. "[The] DHHR didn't have the services to implement what the kids need, but we were flooded with cases."

Jackson County has decided to go after the worst of the worst truant students, those who have missed 20 to 25 days of class. Matheny, the county attendance director, tracks the attendance of the county's school system and keeps tabs on the students who serially skip class.

She files a petition with Bryan Cromley, prosecuting attorney for Jackson County, identifying which cases are serious enough to warrant legal action. Since August 2011, she has filed about 150 juvenile truancy petitions.

Cromley then decides whether to prosecute the truant student as a juvenile status offender or target the parents for neglect or abuse for not keeping their child in school.

In 2011, Cromley charged 54 truant students as juvenile status offenders. This year, the number is 53.

"We'll present evidence that the student was truant without good cause," Cromley said.

Typically, the students are placed on a 90-day improvement period and are "kept under a microscope," Matheny said.

From there, if students still fail to attend school and a judge deems a truant student a juvenile status offender or charges the parents with neglect, the DHHR intervenes. Agency workers step in and provide services to the family, like parenting instruction and mentoring for children. In many cases, homes that have rampant truancy also have issues of substance abuse and parental neglect, new areas under DHHR auspices that workers say they don't have time to pursue.

Before she resigned, all of the truancy cases in Jackson County used to come to Clegg. She said she told the DHHR that it needed a larger staff to deal with the backlogged truancy caseload. At her peak, Clegg had more than 60 truancy cases on her desk.

DHHR workers say a manageable workload is about 15 cases.

"I said we needed more people," Clegg said. "[The] DHHR said they would try to get me help, but they didn't have the resources, so I resigned."

Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.harris@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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