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Truancy is usually the first sign that a young person is giving up and losing his or her way. When skipping school, they are telling their parents, school officials, and the community at-large that they are in trouble.

Research tells us that youth who do not graduate high school are more likely to be unemployed, chronically ill, on welfare, and/or incarcerated, putting themselves at a long-term disadvantage.

Lake County Juvenile Court Judge Thomas P. Stefaniak Jr. has heard the call for help from local schools and law enforcement and launched a new truancy initiative aimed at filling the gaps in communities that do not have their own programs.

This new initiative is the first step in reducing the need to remove youth from their homes and place them in residential facilities. Truant youth are at greater risk of becoming delinquent and needing institutional placement if this problem is not effectively treated.

“We are building off the successes of Crown Point, Gary, Lake Station, and Tri Creek school districts,” Judge Stefaniak stated. “The new truancy initiative in Lake County is directed at meshing laws that are traditionally enforced in both adult and juvenile court, and joining efforts between the two court systems. 

"The goal is to coordinate across both systems to reach the ultimate goal of ensuring that children and youth receive the education they deserve.”

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In cooperation with Lake County Prosecutor Bernard A. Carter, Juvenile Probation, school districts, Department of Child Services, other courts, and stakeholders, there is a commitment to help young people meet their educational goals. 

As part of the larger umbrella of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and the Alternatives to Detention Work Group, state funding is being used to form a ‘Strike Team’ to not only marry and coordinate existing resources, but to be proactive by making home visits. The plan is to intervene early and provide effective resources before a student gets too far behind.

Most students in Indiana who fit the legal definition of truancy are at grave risk of school failure. Judge Stefaniak added that the problem of truancy can be complicated because Lake County has 17 school districts, with varying measures to determine truancy. Consistency across these school districts will help this Strike Team send a consistent message. 

“All parents have a legal obligation to see their children are educated, up to a certain point; and there are legal enforcement mechanisms that can be utilized towards that goal to either assist or force parents to comply with the law,” Judge Stefaniak said. 

This means that parents can face jail time and children can be brought as truants into the Lake County Juvenile Court system. Available services will be revealed more efficiently to help families, while at the same time holding parents and children accountable. 

Schools will need to exhaust administrative remedies; after that, the court system will assist.

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Elena Dwyre, MS, LSW is CEO of Campagna Academy in Schererville. Contact her at edwyre@cahope.org or (219) 322-8614, or visit www.campagnaacademy.org for more information. Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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