Monday, September 22, 2014

Truancy and the Special Education Student

Truancy is a dilemma frequently facing school systems.  A violation of compulsory attendance requirements can, in the worst case, lead to significant punitive consequences for a family.  What happens, however, when the student exhibiting truant tendencies is a special education student? What kind of special obligations, if any, does a school district have to a child with a disability?

In Maryland, there is a strong positive correlation between rates of habitual truancy and drop out rates and special education students. Baltimore City ranks among the highest in the State in those variables for which positive correlations with truancy were found. 1. There are many explanations for this positive correlation. First, the difficulties that special education students face in order to access the curriculum can make every day in school feel like a battle. Second, special education students are more susceptible to becoming victims of bullying, again deterring students from regularly coming to school. Third, the student's disability may include an emotional disorder that results in inappropriate types of behaviors or feelings under normal circumstances.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), each student is entitled to a free, appropriate, public education. Additionally, the Child Find requirements under IDEA require all school districts to identify, locate, and evaluate all students who are suspected of having a disability. 34 CFR 300.111. Although lack of attendance on its own does not qualify a student for special education services, it is a factor to be taken into consideration. 34 CFR 300.8(a)(1). 2. Once a truant student is identified as having a disability, he/she is eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in order to assure that the student is receiving  free, appropriate, public education.

One component of the IEP may include a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), a "collaborative, student-centered process for gathering information that reliably predicts the conditions and/or circumstances concerning why a student is exhibiting an inappropriate behavior," in this case the inappropriate behavior being truancy. 3. Following the FBA is a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which includes strategies such as positive behavior reinforcements, program modifications, and supplementary aids and services that can assist the student in overcoming habitual truancy. The BIP includes a plan to monitor the student's progress to ensure that the student now is able to access the curriculum.

These programs are very helpful in addressing a special education student's truancy issue head-on. Although there is still much work to do, these federally mandated obligations prevent hundreds of students annually from dropping out of school. It would be wonderful to find a way for similar programs to be available for students without disabilities but who have problems regularly attending.  But that is a conversation for another day...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Link Between Poverty, Truancy, and the Juvenile Justice System

The links among poverty, school attendance rates, and delinquency are all intertwined and, when viewed as such, depict a terrifying truth.  In America, over 16 million students live below the poverty line, creating a set of circumstances and problems that a large percentage of the population does not have to endure.[1] A reality for these children could be:
  • Parents working multiple jobs, sometimes unable to take their children to school
  • Incarcerated parents
  • Children living in a group home
  • Children having to walk through a dangerous neighborhood to get to school
  • Pressures on children to work or engage in illicit activity in an effort to supplement family income

This list is not definitive; it merely scratches the surface of the problems faced by children who live in impoverished neighborhoods.  As children fail to attend school for any one of the aforementioned reasons, their grades suffer.
      The correlation between an individual’s success in school, more specifically his/her ability to read, and incarceration is alarming.  A student not reading at a third grade level by the third grade is three to four times as likely not to graduate high school on time, and this figure actually increases to six times as likely not to graduate high school on time for students from low income families.[2] More importantly, a study conducted by Northwestern University determined high school dropouts are sixty three times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates.[3]
            These statistics should paint a picture of the importance of education, particularly elementary education.  Currently, juvenile justice systems across the country have the overarching goal of rehabilitating youth offenders in an effort to reduce future encounters with the law.  Interventions offered by the justice system include educational and vocational training programs, aimed at educating youth offenders so that they may receive the education and skills necessary to support themselves without living a delinquent life.
      Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services currently operates 7 juvenile detention centers across the state, dealing with individuals 18 and younger who enter the justice system.[4] Maryland could possibly reduce the number of youth involved in the juvenile justice system by proactively concentrating on elementary education.   Providing child-care services before and after school would allow parents to work longer in an effort to support their families while allowing their children to attend school.  Making routes to school safer by means of police enforcement or volunteers would encourage attendance and learning in elementary school.  Proactive measures such as these could reduce the numbers of youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Drug Treatment Court’s Effect on Recidivism Rates

Drug treatment courts are a source of therapeutic jurisprudence as problem-solving courts. Their purpose is to resolve underlying issues, which may be the source of crimes that are being committed, from a holistic and big-picture approach. In Baltimore City, the Drug Treatment Court was created in 1994 due to a study relating 85% of crimes to substance abuse and addiction.  Drug treatment courts are a way to prevent incarceration by providing an alternative. Four main goals of Baltimore City’s Drug Treatment Court are as follows:
  • Provide pretrial, drug-dependent detainees with close supervision
  • Allow judges to use a cost-effective sentencing option by providing a fully integrated and comprehensive treatment program
  • Reduce recidivism rates of street crime committed by drug-motivated offenders
  • Facilitate the academic, vocational, and prosocial skill development of offenders[1]
Because of the many actors involved in achieving these goals, the court system  essentially is working together to reduce the overall recidivism rates, especially when substance-driven crimes are being committed. The systems that are provided for offenders are supervision, status hearings through judicial monitoring, drug testing, and drug treatment.  In order to graduate from the program, participants must have employment, have “completed 20 hours of community service, have participated in the program for a minimum of 12 months, and have at least 9 months of clean urine samples."[2]
Research has found that the offenders involved in drug treatment courts have a lower recidivism rate than those who are not involved in these courts.  It has been proven that “[t]he average effect of participation is analogous to a drop in recidivism from 50% to 38%; and, these effects last up to three years.”[3]Although the re-arrest rates had decreased by only about 10%, new arrests had significantly decreased.  The Baltimore City Drug Treatment Court not only has the effect of reducing recidivism rates while a person is in the program, but it also has lasting effects even after the program is completed.[4]Drug treatment courts as a type of problem-solving court have proven to be successful and continue to be implemented.

Other articles:

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Impact of Trauma and Urban Poverty on Students and Families

The University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) Truancy Court Program (TCP) team interacts with students of all ages who have unique needs. As we learn more about the students enrolled in the TCP, we often find that the reasons behind their attendance issues are profound and complex.  A large majority of TCP students live in poverty-stricken urban communities where traumatic events occur on a regular basis. According to this article by the Justice Policy Institute, “a traumatic event can involve interpersonal events such as physical or sexual abuse, war, community violence, neglect, maltreatment, loss of a caregiver, witnessing violence or experiencing trauma vicariously; it can also result from severe or life threatening injuries, illness, and accidents.”  It is not hard to understand how living in this environment can greatly affect a student’s ability to come to school on a regular basis and perform well academically.

One of the TCP 9th graders, LaToya*, came to one of the first TCP weekly meetings with a visibly sad demeanor.  She gave curt explanations for her sporadic attendance and shrugged off questions about why her grades were dropping.  In a one-on-one conversation with her after the meeting, she revealed that in the past month she had lost two cousins and an uncle to gun violence.  She expressed feelings of hopelessness and grief and said she had lost her motivation to come to school regularly or participate in her classes.  She was bottling up very difficult emotions and had no one in whom she could confide.  She said that no one in her family was open to talking about the deaths.  She refused to talk to her friends because she did not want them “in her business.”

Another TCP student, Deon*, always came to the TCP meetings with a respectful and calm attitude.  The reports from his teachers and school administrators, however, made it clear that his behavior in school was consistently disruptive and disrespectful.  He could not sit still in class but would wander around the halls, causing distractions to students in other classrooms. His grades continued to drop and his behavior deteriorated even further;  the school’s interventions were not working.  As we got to know him better during our TCP meetings and in his private conversations with the TCP Social Worker and TCP Mentor,  Deon revealed that he had been sexually abused as a young child by his older cousin. The abuse findings resulted in his cousin being incarcerated and caused a considerable amount of tension in the family. Despite his history of abuse and increasingly negative behavior, Deon’s mother ended his mental health therapy services at the recommendation of the therapist.

These are just two glimpses into the lives of students who participate in the TCP.  During the TCP team’s time with the students, we reach out to their families and provide support through referrals to appropriate services and follow up on those referrals. We aim to create a safe space where students are given respect and dignity and feel that their voices are heard and valued. After our sessions end, we work to maintain contact and ensure that each student and his/her family have the necessary long-term resources in place.

Latoya was referred to a grief group counseling program for teenagers and her mother is arranging individual mental health therapy for her. We are working with Deon’s mother to get him re-enrolled in mental health therapy and continue to help her advocate on his behalf to ensure that he has the support and services he needs to achieve academic success.
Students like LaToya and Deon and their families, who have confronted and continue to face trauma in their communities, can succeed in school and beyond if there are well-informed and compassionate persons and programs in place to provide the care and resources they so desperately need and deserve.

*Names have been changed to respect students' privacy

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Consistency at Home Is Key to Student Success

“I didn’t come to school because my uniform was at my mom’s house and I slept at my dad’s two days last week.”
“I was late because I stayed at my cousin’s house and her mom didn’t get us up.” 
“I overslept because I was staying in my aunt’s room and she had the TV on all night.”
“I missed school because I stayed at my dad’s and he lives in West Baltimore.” 
“I was late for school because I stayed with my Grandmother and 
had to take my cousin to school and then didn’t know which bus to take.”

When a student moves from house to house or family member to family member he or she suffers from a lack of structure, the absence of routine, and inconsistent rules and expectations. Because Baltimore City Public School (BCPS) students rely heavily on public transportation, each new move often also means figuring out a new bus schedule. Such was the case with Kiera, a 5th grader who was shuffled between the care of her mother, her grandmother, and her aunts. Sometimes she arrived at her school’s weekly CFCC Truancy Court Program (TCP) meetings from her mother’s house exhausted and reserved, insisting that all she liked to do at home was sleep. At other times she arrived late because she had to take a bus to school from her grandmother’s house, which was fifteen miles outside Baltimore City limits. Yet there were times when she came to school rested and talkative, with her hair neatly combed and clothes clean and pressed. The TCP team learned that those were weeks when she was staying with an aunt who lived far away but who provided consistency, care, and reliable transportation to and from school. Although Kiera liked to stay with her aunt, she did not know from day to day where she would be expected to spend the next night, and her ability to keep up with schoolwork and control her behavior suffered as a result.

In December, Kiera’s attendance improved dramatically. Between December and March, Kiera was present and on time every day. Her grades improved, as did her behavior. The TCP team learned that Kiera had been staying with her aunt.  For the first time since August, she had been in one place for almost four months, and her school record reflected that consistency.  Kiera’s aunt, however, was not her legal guardian, and Kiera could be removed from her care by either of her parents at any moment.  The aunt asked the TCP team if anything could be done to make her caregiving arrangement permanent and enforceable. 

What can be done?

In cases like Kiera’s, where students are being moved from the custody of one caregiver to another, it is critical for caregivers to understand the importance of consistency and stability. The TCP team counsels each family member to value the student’s education and to make a commitment to help him or her get to school on time, regardless of where the student stays. Mediation services can bring together family and community members to ensure that the students’ attendance remains consistent. The inconsistency of many custodial arrangements often stems from the fact that they are informal. Thus, establishing legal guardianship for one party can provide consistency and permanency by specifying who has the authority to make decisions on behalf of the child. Similarly, a legal determination of physical custody can provide stability by establishing a clear schedule for the student. These legal determinations also help by empowering caregivers with the right to make enforceable decisions regarding the student, even if others disagree.  In some extreme and rare cases in which one of the caregivers is neglectful or abusive, filing a report with Child Protective Services may be necessary to ensure that a child is removed from or kept out of a dangerous situation.

Whether the solution takes the form of a legally enforceable document or simply a verbal consensus among caregivers, consistency in a student’s home life increases his or her potential for academic and social success.  With the help of the TCP team, Kiera’s family is trying to find a lasting solution that will work for them and, most importantly, for Kiera.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What is Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ)?

I founded the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) in August, 2000, with Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ) as one of its two underlying theoretical constructs. Indeed, TJ informs and frames all of CFCC’s work. Many academics have heard of TJ, and the legal and judicial communities are becoming increasingly familiar with its meaning and implications for the practice of law. Nonetheless, there are some misconceptions surrounding TJ and its application. For example, one popular misconception is that TJ calls for judges and lawyers to be experts in psychology or social work.

Professor David Wexler, one of the two co-founders of TJ, and I recently published an article in the Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice that helps to explain the evolution of TJ, its meaning, and its impact on the law across a wide range of practice areas.

Therapeutic jurisprudence is a field of inquiry that “focuses on the law's impact on an individual's emotional and psychological well-being.” Professor Wexler and I explain:
TJ looks at the law as a social force that can produce therapeutic (helpful) or antitherapeutic (harmful) consequences. These consequences flow from substantive law, legal rules, and legal procedures (the "legal landscape") and from the behavior (the "practices and techniques") of legal actors, including lawyers, judges, court personnel, and others working within a legal context… Therapeutic jurisprudence aims to produce tangible, positive change: to promote the well-being of all legal actors and to improve the justice system so that it is more relevant and helpful for participants and their communities.” 
As we point out, TJ is a lens or framework through which to examine the legal and judicial systems. TJ asks us to think about the law in a very different way—to view the law as a helping profession rather than as an adversarial process in which there are always winners and losers. TJ urges judges and lawyers, for example, to consider the impact of their decisions and actions on the well-being of the parties who come before them. It asks all legal actors to think beyond the immediate facts of a case and to take into account the potential consequences, both intended and unintended, of their actions and decisions.

Addressing issues of marriage, divorce, custody, child support, adoption, property, and protection, among other issues, family law has a profound impact on people’s lives and well-being. Family law and the family justice system also include the child welfare system, or child abuse and neglect cases, and the juvenile justice system, or juvenile delinquency cases, both of which regularly define and/or change the trajectory of a child’s life.

Although TJ does not demand that judges and lawyers become social workers or psychologists, it does call for an interdisciplinary approach to judicial and legal decision-making. The social sciences offer important and helpful perspectives.

I believe that lawyers and judges in the family justice system should be trained to identify and address the legal and non-legal reasons underlying a family's problems. They also should be taught to examine the connections and interactions among family members, as well as the relationship of the family to community institutions. Judges and lawyers who use a holistic approach to strengthen these connections and who can find creative solutions to a family’s legal and non-legal issues are the true problem-solvers that these families and children need and deserve.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Therapeutic Side of Law

One of my apprehensions in committing to law school was the adversarial process and the impact on families and children in the judicial process.  The Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) Student Fellows Program has been instrumental in reassuring me that my pursuit of a legal career was the right decision.  Throughout this semester, my colleagues and I have learned a different side of the law grounded in Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ) and the Ecology of Human Development.  TJ is a holistic approach that aims to address the legal and non-legal issues of clients while incorporating interdisciplinary methods to address the root issue(s) and providing the necessary resources to empower clients to regain ownership of their lives and problems.  The Ecology of Human Development looks at each litigant’s environment individually to customize a solution to fit their individual needs.  

These brand new concepts and programs were introduced to us through classroom discussions, guest speakers, and (my personal favorite) field trips to see these concepts in action!  From guest speakers and visits to the Unified Family Court to seminar topics dealing with Preventive Law, Court Reform in Family Law, Collaborative Law, the Juvenile Justice System, and Problem Solving Courts, the CFCC Student Fellows have been exposed to a hidden side of law that I suspect is concealed from even most practicing attorneys. 

This year also marks the fifteenth anniversary of the creation of Maryland’s Family Divisions.  While this major milestone deserves a celebration (stay tuned for a date), it is also a reason to pause, reflect, and assess the implementation of the mission and goals of the Family Division.  My CFCC project this semester was to assist in planning the fifteen year celebration, including analyzing survey results from Circuit Court Judges and Masters to learn about their attitudes and court practices with respect to addressing the needs of families and children in the family court.  The mission of the Family Division is to provide comprehensive services early on in the litigation process to improve the lives of families and children who appear before the court.  Preliminary survey results indicate that while judicial officers find it important to have and integrate interdisciplinary solutions, the implementation is lacking.  To see the concepts we’ve learned all semester being recognized and requested by the judiciary is encouraging.    

As we wrapped up this semester last Wednesday, I realized how influential this class has been to me.  This class has taught me to practice law more holistically, which not only will benefit clients but additionally will reassure me that I can make a substantial impact in the lives of my future clients.  I truly believe the experience and concepts of the CFCC Student Fellows Program should be integrated throughout the law school curriculum so that all future lawyers are trained to practice law more holistically.  Until then, I encourage my fellow students at UB Law to take advantage of this fantastic opportunity and enroll in the CFCC Student Fellows Program I to learn about the therapeutic side of law.