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Missouri Moms Jailed After Kids Miss Too Much School

“Truancy” sounds old-­fashioned. But after two mothers were convicted of letting their kids miss too much school, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld their incarceration sentences for the misdemeanor on September 15, 2023.

The Court’s ruling came in the consolidated appeals of Caitlyn Williams and Tamarae LaRue, who were convicted of violating the state’s compulsory attendance law in 2022—Williams for letting her daughter miss 15 days of first grade, LaRue after her son skipped 14 days of kindergarten. Each parent was sentenced to 15 days in the Laclede County Jail, though LaRue’s term was suspended, and she was placed on probation for two years.

Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10% or more of a school term, has risen alarmingly, with over 14.7 million U.S. students chronically absent in 2021-­22, a number 80% higher than before the COVID-­19 pandemic. Approaches to truancy vary widely. Some states criminalize it, leading to fines, court involvement and even jail time for parents like Williams and LaRue. Other states emphasize prevention and intervention, offering support to families facing underlying problems with transportation or childcare needs related to poverty.

Many absences for the two women’s kids resulted from sickness in the family. LaRue’s five-­year-­old missed one day with a fever, another for a doctor’s appointment. At other times she had car trouble, or one of her other three kids had COVID-­19. Her primary crime appeared to be that she was a single parent with several kids and limited resources.

The cases reveal the human cost of punitive truancy enforcement. Ellen Flottman, the Columbia attorney representing both women, argued that the legal definition of truancy was too vague and that enforcement of the law violates constitutional due process protections. But the Court disagreed and affirmed both convictions. See: State v. Williams, 673 S.W.3d 467 (Mo. 2023).

As PLN reported, a Pennsylvania mother of seven died in jail in 2014 after accumulating $2,000 in unpaid fines and court costs connected to her children’s truancy. Eileen DiNino’s death prompted a 2015 revision to state law that minimized truancy prosecutions. [See: PLN, July 2016, p.60.]  


Additional source: Washington Post

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Related legal case

State v. Williams