School absences often point to crises at home
When people visit Stacey Achterhoff's classroom, they sit in the little chairs at the little table. It's in her room at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School that Achterhoff teaches some of Duluth public schools' most vulnerable yet resilient students ...
When people visit Stacey Achterhoff’s classroom, they sit in the little chairs at the little table.
It’s in her room at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School that Achterhoff teaches some of Duluth public schools’ most vulnerable yet resilient students - students who are homeless. She teaches them one-on-one, pulling kids out of their larger classrooms to give them extra support, mostly in math and reading.
So far this school year, between Myers-Wilkins and Congdon Park elementary schools - which serve the most homeless shelters and transitional housing units in the district - Achterhoff has worked with 56 kids. Some surf couches or live in tents part of the time.
“Our parents have precarious housing,” Achterhoff said of the Families in Transition Program, which is supported by a three-year federal Title I grant that was recently renewed. “Some of them still do a fantastic job of parenting.”
It was last month that Achterhoff found herself in the big people’s chairs in the Duluth City Council chambers.
She was addressing the Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children. She called for changing the state’s child protective services system “from a reactive to a proactive model.”
The state’s child protective services have come under intense media scrutiny in 2014 for a series of tragic deaths and outcomes despite victims having been on counties’ radars.
Achterhoff became a voice for child protection when she saw the task force convened without a representative from Northeastern Minnesota on its 26-member roster. She wrote to the body and was invited to its Oct. 21 meeting in Duluth. The task force is expected to have early recommendations for changes to the child protection system presented to the governor in December, and final recommendations to the state Legislature in March.
Achterhoff believes the state is missing opportunities to intervene with families whose children are missing too much school, which she calls a “tip of an iceberg” problem that could be used to address potential crises sooner.
“Her statement about neglect being a marker is supported by some research,” said Mark Wilhelmson, the supervisor in southern St. Louis County’s Initial Intervention Unit, which fields child maltreatment reports, including those for educational neglect.
“I think her point is accurate in many ways. Often with educational neglect reports you find some other stuff going on that would fit in (other) maltreatment categories,” Wilhelmson said.
The state’s threshold for educational neglect - a category that’s distinguished from truancy for children 12 and younger – is seven unexcused absences. Achterhoff spoke of one family whose student missed 45 days of school last year to no consequence, only to be removed from the home after a more severe incident involving law enforcement this fall.
“Missing school should be treated as an opportunity to work with families,” said Achterhoff, who cited to the task force an attendance report she ran at one Duluth school.
“This is a school that on any given day houses 420 students (grades) K through five,” she told the task force. “One hundred thirty-seven students met the threshold of unexcused absences for educational neglect.”
Achterhoff’s solution: “Offer families intense, meaningful programs while conflicts are relatively solvable,” she said, “instead of waiting for catastrophic mental illness, drug addiction, domestic violence or homelessness.”
Like other teachers and child and health care workers, Achterhoff is a mandatory reporter.
If she observes what she believes are signs of abuse or maltreatment of a child, including educational neglect, she reports it to an entry point within the county. She told the task force she’s frustrated by a system that doesn’t make time for reports of educational neglect because caseloads are so filled with more acute and dangerous scenarios. She said she empathizes with child protection workers who have large caseloads. More “person-power,” as she called it, is required to supplement the existing system.
Wilhelmson said the local child protective services system does address educational neglect, but he admits that follow-up with mandatory reporters could be stronger. Social workers, though, have little time to spend on case epilogues, with new cases coming in every day. Achterhoff told the task force it’s disconcerting to not hear back about outcomes from her and others’ mandatory reports. Wilhelmson said a single piece of paperwork is filed back to the reporting person, but that it’s more of a procedural transaction and not an explanation of the interaction between families and social workers.
“When you look at educational neglect,” Wilhelmson said. “It usually is something related to the parent not getting the kids to school. Some are two-parent families who’ve both gone to work, and you’ve got kids 8 and 9 years old in charge of getting themselves off to school, and they don’t make it. Some parents are so disabled by a form of alcohol or drug abuse, they don’t get up and get them off to school.”
Educational neglect follow-ups by social workers don’t usually require parents’ response.
A family can ignore social workers’ efforts to assess the family situation. Social workers are told to go away, or they knock on doors behind which there is bustling activity but never an answered door. Achterhoff said she has heard from workers who say, “‘I stuck my card in the door,’” she said.
Workers face “extreme challenges” in getting parents to voluntarily accept social workers’ interventions, Wilhelmson said. Some parents had poor educational experiences themselves and don’t value learning for their children, he said, especially when basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter aren’t being met.
“Some of it is the huge issue of poverty,” Wilhelmson said.
Poverty elevates family stress and can fuel crises, making it an underlying issue to the state’s debate about child protection.
Sitting alongside Achterhoff in front of the task force last week was Dawn Shykes, program director of the Lutheran Social Services’ Crisis Nursery Duluth. The shelter is licensed for up to 12 children at a time, with an average length of stay of eight days. It’s where children who are removed from their families go temporarily. Shykes said there are many times lately that the shelter has been at capacity as it waits for foster placement options, which also are becoming more difficult to find.
Everywhere one looks, the system is stressed to capacity, according to those who work with the system.
“The kids we are getting we definitely should be getting,” Shykes told the task force. “The severity of the cases has been going up.”
It’s that precise problem Achterhoff hopes is addressed by the task force.
“It is fertile soil,” Achterhoff said of seizing educational neglect as an opening to reach families sooner. “Good stuff could grow out of it.”