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."