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April 22, 2016

“Truancy Court” Case Was about Helping a Real Family

Jim Mason
Vice President for Litigation and Development

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As the Director of Litigation for HSLDA, I thought it important to address some of the comments made about the “truancy court” in Douglas County, Missouri that we have been reporting on.

This case began when a real family called us and reported that they had received a “summons” to “truancy court” just days after they had withdrawn their children from public school to homeschool them.

The children had no unexcused absences while in public school, and the parents followed all of the legal requirements to withdraw them and begin homeschooling. There was no legitimate cause to summon them to any court, and Missouri law explicitly forbids commencing an investigation simply because a child is withdrawn from public school to be homeschooled. In other words, the family had done nothing wrong.

Nevertheless, when they withdrew their children the public school assistant superintendent told them to expect a caseworker visit because the schools had been instructed to make a referral whenever a child was withdrawn from public school to be homeschooled.

No caseworker came, but the family received the summons a few days later.

Our investigation revealed that “truancy courts” in Missouri are not really courts at all. They are a form of “informal adjustment” and are designed to be a diversionary program to fix a known truancy issue without resorting to a formal case in a real court.

The Douglas County Herald referred to the document received by the family as a letter. But the notice they received was emphatically not a “letter.” It was a summons, as Circuit Court Judge R. Craig Carter himself has called it. It commanded attendance.

The so-called summons to truancy court looked like an official document demanding an appearance.

You can read it here yourself.

As can be readily seen, this is not a “letter.” It is a formal court document that looks just like a case in juvenile court.

Our challenge of this document was about the difference between receiving a letter inviting voluntary attendance in a diversionary program and receiving a summons commanding an appearance in court. Because the summons was presented in the form of an actual case in the Circuit Court of Douglas County, we needed to resort to a higher court to resolve the issue.

Higher Court

We eventually asked the Supreme Court of Missouri to review the procedures followed in Judge Carter’s program. We explained to the Court how procedures in his program differ significantly from those of the voluntary diversion program in which Supreme Court Justice Mary R. Russell volunteers—the program the Herald found on the Internet.

As we pointed out to the Supreme Court, according to its own Rule 112.02, the juvenile officer may “request” participation in an informal adjustment. And the rule requires that the “letter” say “that their attendance at the informal adjustment conference is voluntary and that each may be represented by counsel at the conference.”

The summons at issue in Douglas County failed to say either that attendance was voluntary or that counsel may be present. It did say, however, that “attendance is mandatory.”

The comment to Supreme Court Rule 112.01 says it this way: “[T]he informal adjustment process … does not constitute ‘official’ action by the court that commands participation and compliance.” This explanation is quite plain: the informal adjustment is not action by the court.

We have no criticism for the voluntary program authorized under the rules as carried out by Justice Russell. Voluntary truancy mitigation programs to keep kids out of court are a good thing. If we were to quibble at all, it would be with giving these diversion programs the confusing misnomer “truancy court”—as they are called around the state.

It’s Supposed to be Voluntary

We are convinced, however, that Judge Carter was in error when he said that the local program he created is a real court, or a legitimate court, when at most it is a voluntary program with no judicial authority to take official action.

It is important to note that before the Supreme Court could rule on our petition, Judge Carter quashed the original summons. If the summons had been a legitimate command to appear before a real court for valid legal reasons, it would have been improper for the Circuit Court to quash it. Quashing the summons is a tacit admission that it never should have been issued in the first place.

HSLDA functions both as a law firm and as an advocacy organization. As a law firm, we had an obligation to the family to raise every legal argument available. As an advocacy organization, we reported what we discovered about the Douglas County diversion program. We did this because homeschoolers have learned that we need to be vigilant for our liberty to homeschool whenever it is threatened—whether by those who think homeschooling is a bad idea, or by well-intentioned officials who simply overstep their authority.

We hope that the truancy diversion program in Douglas County has learned from this case and will be operated in accordance with the Supreme Court’s rules in the future.

Folks in Douglas County should insist that it is.

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Read more: Swearengin Case homepage >>