Judgment at Hookyville

The volunteer jurists running a truancy court for St. Louis get an up-close view of wayward kids, don't-care parents and war-zone schools. It's worse than they thought.

Most, he says, have learning disabilities, impulse problems or developmental delays.

They're not getting anything near what they need to succeed.

Any "positive outcomes"?

Jennifer Silverberg
Judge Joan Burger of the 22nd Circuit Court reads an essay she assigned and hopes to give out a candy bar, for once, instead of a referral to juvenile court or drug treatment. With her is Dave Vierzba, one of two deputy juvenile officers now stationed at Roosevelt High School.
Jennifer Silverberg
Judge Joan Burger of the 22nd Circuit Court reads an essay she assigned and hopes to give out a candy bar, for once, instead of a referral to juvenile court or drug treatment. With her is Dave Vierzba, one of two deputy juvenile officers now stationed at Roosevelt High School.

He shrugs.

"Year before last, I had a kid complete high school and go to junior college."

The words hang in the air, and he hears how grim they sound.

"I see this truancy program working for some," he says quickly. "I do see it working for some. If they are fortunate enough to have someone at home who has not given up on them, someone who is willing to fight the battle 24/7, they stand a chance.

"But a kid who's been in the system 15 years just hears some more conversation."

Bell looks off into the distance.

"Most of these kids have raised themselves," he says. "They remind me of Romulus and Remus. Whatever they learn, they learn mostly as defenses, and it's difficult to destroy those defenses.

"Because when they leave the school, they need them."


Judge Betty Turner has the sternest ponytail on record.

Shiny black hair pulled taut, she leans forward on her desk and stares down through thick-rimmed glasses at the least fixable part of the truancy problem: the parents.

Until last year, truancy cases rarely made it onto a municipal docket. If a hearing did get scheduled, the parents skipped it. Consequences didn't come until their kid got shot or locked up.

Now, Turner gives the parents one chance to assume responsibility. If they fail, they return for a show-cause trial, and the burden of proof is on them. Either they convince her, or they're sent straight to the medium-security institution for up to 90 days and fined $25 for each day their child was truant.

Public justice is invading their homes, and they're furious.

Turner stays as serene as a Buddha, containing and rebuffing their rage. She gives them every chance she can. But she holds firm.

Today she begins with Marilyn, whose daughter has run away.

"You haven't changed the locks on the door," Turner reminds her. "It looks like you are aiding her. We've been through this before, ma'am. Ma'am! If you are not aiding this child, then you are going to make a police report. No more games. The child has to answer to somebody, or you are going to answer to this court."

Outside, Marilyn says in a rush everything she couldn't say to the judge:

"Lady, how easy could that be? Could you change the locks when you were worried to death about where your baby was? And let's say this child just refuses to go to school and you do lock me up: Where will she be? You think a relative would take my problem child that I can't even deal with?"

She used to be close to her daughter, she says. Now the probation officer keeps hinting that Marilyn must be the cause of the problem. But she's been clean of drugs for years -- she had to pay $25 for a test to prove it.

Marilyn runs through a memorized litany of reasons: The kids her daughter runs with don't go to school, they all hate Beaumont High School and so on.

She talks herself all the way to the truth: The daughter turned wild after her father left them. He fathered a baby with another woman, and then he stopped taking his daughter's calls.

She knew it was on purpose, because he has Caller ID.

And when she blocked her number and called back, he answered.

"I tried to make up for it," says Marilyn. "She has her own phone and a TV and more than enough shoes. But none of that could take his place."


Two weeks later, Charee, mother of eight boys and two girls, tries to show cause why she should not be incarcerated. One son has missed more than 100 days, four others between 14 and 55 days apiece.

"I couldn't really say why," says Charee. "They just won't go. I'm workin' on it, though."

She lives four doors from the school. She doesn't work. She was referred for drug treatment, but the court has no record of her going.

"Ma'am, I find that you have not attempted to meet your burden of proof and there is absolutely no improvement," says Turner.

Charee is handcuffed and taken, weeping, to MSI.

The next mother meets the same fate, with equal incomprehension:

"If I walk Todd to school and he don't stay there, then I'm being held responsible for his actions?"

Well, yeah.

Last is Mary, whose son, Tony, has missed 48 days at Beaumont High School.

"There is evidence that his problems were due to his father's and my drug use," she says with dignity. She describes a history of problems with attention and behavior, a recent diagnosis and four medication changes.

Tony rises to testify, his handsome features soft-edged, smudged like a charcoal sketch. His coat slips as he walks forward, and Mary instinctively reaches to catch it.

She's been a wreck about this trial. After years of protecting her son from a stepfather angry enough to throw him around the room -- years of school failures and tantrums -- a poster on the wall at Juvenile Court told her what his teachers wouldn't: The school district had special programs and services for kids with behavior problems.

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