By Kayla Faria, CFCC Student Fellow 2015-2016
Founded on a bedrock of therapeutic jurisprudence, some truancy courts are aimed to solve problems and address truant behavior, but – like so much of our justice system – this underlying theoretical foundation crumbles without practical vigilance. These courts can facilitate a transformative space that transcends the school-to-prison pipeline and prevents a catastrophic intervention like foster care by empowering families with community-based resources. Without vigilance, truancy courts can curtail due process and serve as a punitive mechanism, punishing children and cash-strapped parents for systemic woes. Too often, courts shift the culpability of a fractured education system to low-income parents.
While we strive for greater efficiency in our courts, we must consistently examine whether our programs and judicial practices are preserving due process and creating therapeutic consequences. Consciousness of how these courts can fall short allows us to improve our justice system. To subject a family to an overbroad court order in a truancy court proceeding where parents are not afforded legal counsel flouts due process. A heavy (or overburdened) workload does not absolve us from our duties as officers of the court. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard and challenge our leaders and systems to strive for greater transparency and resource accessibility. From compiling quantitative data on judicial practices to demanding deeper explanations for why a particular avenue is in the child’s best interests, vigilance can come in many flavors. But our vigilance must maximize the strengths and expertise of families.
Changing the system starts from within. By embracing a holistic approach, informed by cultural competence, we acknowledge that the root causes of truancy do not fall solely upon impoverished or tiny shoulders. Part of creating an atmosphere of cultural competence means refusing to impose normative hegemonic values under the auspices of problem-solving. It means doing the hard work of listening to children and parents. It means actively warding against a “child-saver” or tourist mentality that only soothes interveners’ egos. And it means creating a non-bureaucratic culture that centers families and engages a team of different voices without perpetuating trauma to children or the sort of informality that condescends, assigns blame, or oppresses parents.