Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Intended Consequences

The dictionary defines unintended consequences as “a set of results that was not intended as an outcome.”

As many families have spoken out about the damage done to their children by Nebraska’s “excessive absenteeism” law over the past four years, we have heard the term “unintended consequences” many times from state senators, county attorneys, school administrators, social workers, and other members of the attendance enforcement industry.

Here are a few examples of what our public officials cavalierly call “unintended consequences”:

Fact:  A little boy in Sidney with a doctor’s note for every absence, served with a summons by the sheriff, ordered to appear in court, separated from his parents, told he was in danger of being removed from his home for absences due to illness, convicted of truancy, and placed on diversion.

Fact:  A teenage girl in Omaha, terrified of missing school and being removed from her home, walks seven miles to school on the interstate, alone, when her mother’s car breaks down.

Fact:  A kindergartner in Seward not even legally required to be in school yet, forced to go to court with his parents to face truancy charges after a series of normal childhood illnesses during his first year of school.

Fact:  Numerous autistic children with I.E.P.’s thrown into the juvenile justice system for absences and tardies directly related to their autism.  In Lincoln, CPS is called and demands a private interview with a 10-year-old autistic child whose absences are all excused.  Two families (one in Omaha, one in Seward) told by school officials, “We’re turning your (autistic) son in to the county attorney.  It will be good for him.”

Fact:  Sick children forced into Hastings’ diversion program under threat of prosecution, including chronically ill and handicapped children.  Students who manage to not be sick for a whole month are given a toy as a reward.  Students who are not able to stay well during the month are not given a toy.

Fact:  A Lincoln mother misses her own mother’s funeral after being falsely prosecuted for truancy three years in a row.  Although charges are dismissed all three years, she lives in fear of losing her son as Lincoln Public Schools repeatedly makes errors in her child’s attendance records.

Fact:  A Seward mother cancels necessary orthodontic treatment for her son because he has been sent to the county attorney due to his chronic illness.

There are many more stories throughout our state of sick and otherwise legitimately absent children being unjustly attacked under the law.  Each of these cases is public knowledge, and most of them have been reported to the state senator who represents the family.  The author of the “excessive absenteeism” law and other proponents claim that none of these situations ever should have happened.  This was not the purpose of the law, they say.  School districts, county attorneys, CPS, etc., aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, they say.  The schools and county attorneys just need more time to figure this out, they say.  These are UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES.

After almost four years gone by, millions of dollars spent, thousands of children harmed, great public uproar by parents, heartbreaking family stories falling on deaf ears, it appears the consequences are no longer unintended.

When public officials have been told for four years that physically and mentally ill children are being thrown into the juvenile justice system, yet the law is not changed, the consequences aren't unintended.

When public officials have been told that a large majority of the families being targeted are living in poverty, yet the law is not changed, the consequences aren't unintended.

When public officials know that families are already struggling with a child’s disability and being sent to law enforcement is the last thing that child needs, yet the law is not changed, the consequences aren't unintended.

I refuse to ever again refer to these families’ stories as “unintended consequences.”  If the consequences were truly unintended, the law would have been changed long ago.

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