By Spencer Hall, CFCC Student Fellow 2012-2013
A few days ago NPR profiled a young woman named Tierra Jackson, now a junior in college, who had struggled in high school as her family experienced homelessness. She recalled being frequently punished by school administrators for her tardiness, but being too embarrassed to tell them that her lateness was caused by a long bus ride from a homeless shelter across town. Ms. Jackson’s story is a prime example of how therapeutic jurisprudence and the Truancy Court Program can help homeless children.
The U.S. Department of Education estimates that there are nearly 1 million school-aged children in this country who are homeless, and the National Center on Family Homelessness believes even that estimate is low. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 provides special protections for these children, with the goal of ensuring minimal disruption to a child’s education during a time of family crisis. For example, if a child’s family loses their housing mid-year and moves into a shelter across town, the parents have the right to enroll the child in a local school or keep the child enrolled in the school of origin. If the family feels it’s in the child’s best interest to stay in the original school, the school system is required to arrange and pay for transportation to and from school.
But how do we identify homeless children to ensure that their rights are protected and that their needs are being met?
As the case of Ms. Jackson shows, the stigma and embarrassment of being homeless can be a significant barrier to school attendance for children and teens. Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), combined with a holistic approach to problem solving and emphasis on empowering individuals, may be the best way to break down these barriers. A TJ mindset calls on lawyers and other actors in the legal system to look at the big picture. For homeless children who fail to attend school, we have to look at both the psychological effects on the child and a host of other reasons why a homeless or unstably-housed child misses school. It could be due to a lack of clean clothes, inadequate transportation, or staying home to take care of younger siblings. Homeless children who do attend school may be frequently late or have trouble concentrating because they didn’t have breakfast. These issues can affect any school-aged child, but they impact homeless children the most.
CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP) is proof that this approach can yield results in identifying the root causes of truancy (and homelessness is just one of the many). By providing an opportunity for an entire team of caring adults – a judge, a TCP coordinator, a CFCC Student Fellow, a TCP mentor, and school representatives – and giving the student the personalized attention he or she needs, we can create a safe, non-judgmental environment where students can talk more freely about their problems than they otherwise might with their teachers or peers. Once we understand the full spectrum of a child’s barriers, we then can take the necessary steps to help that child succeed.