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Mother of 4 Arrested in Children's Truancy

June 18, 1987|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

In one of the most extreme actions taken in a truancy case in the county this year, a San Dimas woman was arrested Tuesday after failing to attend a court hearing on her four children's chronic attendance problems.

Matilde Garcia, 36, who was found guilty last month in Pomona Municipal Court of allowing her children to skip up to 126 days of school since September, was to have attended a follow-up hearing June 3 to show her compliance with the law.

Instead, a bench warrant was issued when she failed to appear, and at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sheriff's Deputy Robert M. Wingate arrested Garcia at her home as her truant children, ages 8 to 17, looked on.

"She keeps saying the same thing: 'I tell them to go to school, but they don't go,' " said Sharon Fowler, assistant supervisor for attendance in the Bonita Unified School District, where all four children are enrolled. "We tell her: 'That's not good enough.' "

Possible Jail Term

Parents who knowingly permit their children to miss classes--either tacitly or by directly discouraging them--can be convicted of an infraction under the state Education Code. If a child continues to skip school, the negligent parent can be jailed for contempt of court.

Over the last two years, only about half a dozen such cases have been decided in Los Angeles County courts, according to school and law enforcement officials. Parents are arrested once or twice a year, at most, for failure to comply, said Lillie Wilson, an attendance consultant for the county Office of Education.

Garcia, a single parent who used a Spanish interpreter in her court appearance last month, was booked at the San Dimas Sheriff's Substation and held in lieu of $500 bail. Her children were permitted to remain at home with an aunt and an uncle.

Pomona Municipal Court Commissioner Marc Lauper, who originally ordered Garcia to perform 35 hours of community service and accompany each child to class in the morning, will preside over the case again.

'Didn't Have Any Feeling'

"This woman didn't care," said Lauper, adding that he might fine Garcia or send her to a parenting class. "She didn't have any feeling one way or the other. . . . I don't think she was really concerned whether her kids went to school or not."

Because the courts are virtually powerless to punish a truant, most school officials attempt to resolve chronic attendance problems by pressuring the parents to keep their child in class.

Officials for the Bonita Unified School District, which has an "unexcused absence" rate of 2%, compared to the statewide average of about 4%, began notifying Garcia last school year about her children's repeated absences.

This year, after several conferences with Garcia at school and at her home, school officials referred the case to the local School Attendance Review Board, which handles attendance problems for both the Bonita and the Claremont unified school districts.

But Garcia's children continued to skip class, sometimes missing months at a time, district officials said. After two meetings with the attendance review board, the case was referred to a hearing officer under the district attorney's jurisdiction.

Only Case to Go to Court

Of 52 truancy cases heard by the attendance review board last year, only three had to be referred to a hearing officer, district officials said. Of those three cases, only Garcia's ended up in court.

At her May court appearance, Garcia said she would resolve the problem, but in the 25 school days after the hearing, her children missed up to 19 days, district officials said.

"She said her kids won't get out of bed," said Fowler, whose district serves 9,000 students in San Dimas and La Verne. "I said, 'Try pouring a glass of water on them. That usually works.' We just don't feel like she's made sufficient effort."

When Deputy Wingate arrived at Garcia's house Tuesday morning, all four children were asleep and Garcia was in nightclothes when she opened the door.

Wingate said he told Garcia to change her clothes, then handcuffed her and led her to the squad car as her children stared in disbelief.

"They just stood there in a trance. They couldn't believe their mom was getting arrested," Wingate said. "The youngest one cried. They were all in shock."

Until the mid-1970s, Juvenile Court judges regularly punished truant children, often placing chronic offenders in work camps or juvenile detention centers. But as social attitudes changed over the last decade, school officials say, the pendulum started to swing away from using the criminal justice system to resolve attendance problems.

The strongest blow to attendance enforcement came in 1976 when the state Assembly voted to decriminalize truancy, stripping Juvenile Court judges of virtually all power to incarcerate or detain truant children.

In an effort to make parents more accountable, a 1981 state law reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction the penalty for parents who willfully allow their children to remain truant. Although the status of the crime was reduced, the aim was to make such cases easier to prosecute because an infraction does not entitle the defendant to a jury trial.

"On the one hand, I'm very glad to see something being done. But on the other hand it's sad to have to go to the lengths of arresting a parent to get a child to come to school," Fowler said. "The way the laws are written, it's really the only way we can do it right now."

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