CRA Petitions for Children with Disabilities – Are They Proper?
In an important opinion released on February 6, 2018, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) made clear that the truancy provisions of the Children Requiring Assistance (CRA) statute must not be applied to children whose failure to attend school is not willful but instead results from medical or mental health issues. For years, I have appeared in court alongside young people who have been summoned to juvenile court through school petitions for truancy when, in fact, their absences directly stemmed from their struggles connected with disabilities such as autism, anxiety, depression or mood disorders or, all too often, from relentless bullying that made them unable to enter the school building. On too many occasions, I have been forced to stand by while these children have been labelled as truants, chastised by school administrators and probation officers and threatened by judges with being removed from their parents’ homes if they did not return to school. In virtually all of these cases I have been struck by the unwillingness of all of these adults to recognize that these children genuinely want to go to school but, due to their disabilities, simply lack the ability to do so. Ordering these children to “just go to school,” without addressing the underlying reason for their inability to attend was doomed to failure and, more often than not, was utterly cruel and served only to exacerbate their anxiety and depression.
In the case of Millis Public Schools v. M.P., the SJC was explicit that CRA truancy petitions are improper unless the child’s failure to attend school is purposeful. Importantly, the court made clear that “purposeful” conduct is only reflected by “behavior arising from reasons portending delinquent behavior.” In this case, the SJC found that while the student, a 15-year old girl, wanted to attend school, she was unable due to complications from a bladder condition compounded by autism and other cognitive and emotional disorders. In reversing the findings of a juvenile court judge that the child was truant, the SJC recognized that the child’s failure to attend school was not purposeful but, rather, was the product of her medical and associated mental and emotional impairments.
The lesson from this case is that, unless a child’s absence is due to “playing hooky” or conduct beyond the parents’ control, CRA petitions are not an appropriate tool to try to compel a child to attend school. Instead, the SJC pointed out that, where a child with a disability is unable to attend school for reasons related to that disability, the proper venue is not juvenile court but, alternatively, is the Bureau of Special Education Appeals which is best equipped to ensure that the child’s needs are being met.
Hopefully, this case will eliminate the all-too-common reaction of school administrators to refer school attendance issues to the juvenile courts which, unfortunately, are ill-equipped to provide services to children with complex medical, mental and emotional disabilities. If you have questions about CRAs or other juvenile court matters involving children with special needs, please do not hesitate to contact Sankey Law Offices at 781-930-3127.