HD64 - Study of Truants and Runaways

Executive Summary:
As part of study activities for HJR 490, the Commission on Youth held eleven focus groups involving over 200 direct service providers throughout the state. The focus group sessions yielded valuable information on the current service system in Virginia for CHINS, CHINSup, and status offenders. The following recommendations are offered in response to the focus group themes and the data and fiscal analysis conducted on the study topic.

The resources for the status offender population have been severely curtailed in all agencies. Schools, Courts, mental health and law enforcement are all overwhelmed in responding to a growing population. Truants and runaways fall to the bottom of the list for service priority. The lack of immediate interventions often causes the child's behavior to escalate. Court intervention is seen as the only means to access mental health services for clients. This has resulted in a situation whereby every locality's group said, "We wait until the child commits a criminal act and then we know there will be the resources and the authority to serve them."

Recommendation 1:
Increase the range of immediate community interventions available for status offenders and their families prior to Court referral.

Across the state, it takes an average 6-8 weeks for a petition filed with the Court to be heard by a Judge. In some places, the time lag is as long as 10 weeks. With truancy, this often means the student has already failed and/or has not been attending school for a full semester before being seen by a Judge. The increase in the types and complexity of cases and the impact of new mandates on the timeframes for Juvenile Court hearings have severely backlogged the dockets.

Recommendation 2:
Improve Court docketing systems to reduce delay between complaint, petition and Court hearings.

Localities expressed a frustration with the lack of Court access for the truant and runaway population and the unavailability of detention space. The Court's reluctance to impose sanctions on either the student or the parent was perceived to undercut the importance of school attendance and render the compulsory school attendance law unenforceable.

Recommendation 3:
Expand the range of sanctions available to the Court for status offenders.

Many school districts admitted having limited options available to the student who is truant and in danger of failing (or who has already failed) for the semester or the year. The requirements for obtaining the General Education Development (GED) certificate were reported to be overly restrictive. Many school systems cited the need for additional apprenticeships and job skills and independent living skills programs. Public schools were reportedly geared to the college-bound student, leaving other students with fewer educational opportunities.

Recommendation 4:
Expand the variety of academic options available to truants.

When runaways and truants are academically low functioning, these youth perceive school as a place of continued failure and often begin to have behavioral problems. Schools become ambivalent at best about keeping them. Vocational education is seen as a "dumping ground" and the "poor relation" within the school divisions. When vocational education training is offered, it is often provided too late (10th and 11th grades) or is geared to the college bound student. Often vocational education is high tech-oriented, while the community's available jobs are in low-tech fields. Truancy is related partially to school failure, which is related (again partially) to the "fit" between the student and the academic program offered.

Recommendation 5:
Increase the viability, accessibility and relevancy of vocational education.

In all of the focus groups, parents were reported to be inconsistently and marginally involved in the resolution of the problems causing a child's non-attendance at school or running away. Sanctions for parents who overtly keep their child from school are not used and the perception is that the Court has no jurisdiction over the parent. Groups drew a clear distinction about where to place the ultimate responsibility for the child's behavior, depending on whether the child was younger or older.

Recommendation 6:
Increase parental responsibility for school attendance and involvement in recommended services.

None of the agencies collects data in any systematic way to show how many youth are served, how much money was spent, and what the outcomes are. There is no data on the number of truants and limited accountability on how the money was spent on services, although all providers report that they are stretched beyond their limit in working with youth and families.

Recommendation 7:
Improve the data collection and program evaluation for status offenders.

Focus group discussions across the state evidenced a lack of knowledge of the laws and procedures regarding status offenders. Statements made about the law and the local procedures established to comply with the Code by representatives of the justice system, child protective services and school systems were consistently inaccurate.

Recommendation 8:
Provide in-depth training to all involved service professionals on juvenile law and procedures.