Mother’s trail of tears brings positive results | NevadaAppeal.com

Mother’s trail of tears brings positive results

Joanna Welch

Tears followed tantrums. Sometimes there were leg pains, or bouts of vomiting. Finally, Nancy Winn would give in to her 10-year-old daughter, Heather.

OK, she could stay home from school.

By mid-morning, Heather would perk up, relieved to spend another day in her mom’s cramped, clutter-filled apartment.

In all, Heather missed 59 days during the 1998-1999 school year.

Winn, 42, maintains that the majority of Heather’s absences were legitimate. She said she called into school and explained that her daughter was sick, or riddled with head lice.

But the absences were anything but legitimate, according to Carson City School District.

Between January 1988 and February 1999, Fritsch Elementary School Principal Dave Aalbers mailed Winn over a dozen letters, concerned about Heather’s sporadic attendance.

On May 5, Winn received a harsh wake-up call when she became the first Carson City parent to be arrested and charged with failure to prevent truancy and contributory neglect under the state’s revised truancy laws.

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It has been more than 20 years since Winn graduated from Yerington High School. Etched in her mind is the taunting that often goes with being an overweight teen and the embarrassment of being unable to sport the latest trendy clothes.

“I had my problems in school, far worse than Heather has ever had, but I graduated,” she said.

Today’s school is a more protective and a nurturing environment, but Winn said it jarred her to see Heather struggling initially with her work, then her teacher and finally her friends.

Winn graduated from high school with a D average. In 1996, following years on welfare, she enrolled in Job Opportunities in Nevada and took typing, clerical and job-seeking skills classes.

She took a seasonal job before a couple of full-time clerical jobs came along.

Winn said she has higher aspirations for her daughter, whom she periodically calls her “gift from God, my angel.”

Winn said she values education, but the 1997 and 1998 school years seemed to pit education against Heather’s health and happiness.

“In my eyes, I was protecting my child. She would go to school and have all these conflicts,” Winn said. “I hate to see my kids unhappy, and the only time Heather was happy was when she was home with me.”

Heather’s growing dislike for school was compounded by several bouts of head lice, sinus infections and removal of her tonsils during the 1998-1999 school year, which accounted for 48 of the 59 absences, Winn said.

“The lice were devastating to her. She had so many lice treatments it wasn’t funny. I’m surprised her hair didn’t fall out,” she said.

In March 1999, the Winns moved apartments and Heather switched from Fritsch Elementary School to Bordewich-Bray Elementary School.

School district officials determined that Heather was attending the wrong school and that she was zoned to attend Mark Twain Elementary School. Again she moved.

Three different schools in three months proved too much and it reflected in Heather’s attendance, Winn said.

“Every time we switched schools, Heather’s self-esteem got lower and lower,” she said.

Heather had problems sleeping. When it was time to get up, Winn couldn’t get Heather out of bed.

The little girl who loves sleep-overs and watching movies avoided her friends.

The scenario became all too familiar to Winn: The subject of attending school would be broached and it would throw Heather into a tantrum or tears, Winn said.

The tension between mother and daughter would simmer and erupt into an argument as both lost their temper.

Heather would invariably remain at home.

“People have been very critical, but they don’t understand the situation we were in,” Winn said. “Heather was falling deeper into this depression. It wasn’t just school. She wouldn’t do anything.”

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A child refusing to attend school, whether it’s with tears or temper, can be a harrowing experience for a parent, said Talisa May, executive director of the Ron Wood Family Resource Center.

The reasons are as numerous as the students who skip school, May said.

The list ranges from students baby-sitting younger siblings while a parent works to a lack of “the right” clothing or clean clothing, to a fear of a teacher or unfinished homework.

“You name it and it’s going on. There is no one category,” she said.

Regardless of the reason, a standard pattern of behavior emerges once a student regularly skips school: the more school missed, the more the student falls behind and the greater the reluctance to attend.

“Kids have learned to put up a darned good fight to avoid school and it’s easier on the parents to sometimes give in,” May said. “Giving in is the worst thing a parent can do.”

The Ron Wood Center was created as a truancy drop-in center, before it evolved into a family resource center.

The center’s role in combating truancy took on a more formal role in 1997 and again in 1999 as the Legislature overhauled Nevada’s truancy laws. The law defines a habitual truant as a student with three or more unexcused absences in one school year.

The 1997 law required each school district to create a truancy advisory board. Board members were to be drawn from juvenile probation, local schools, law enforcement agencies, parents of public school students and local school boards.

The advisory board is charged with monitoring attendance, notifying parents of the truancy laws and establishing programs to reduce truancy, which were largely in place at the Ron Wood Center.

The law requires principals to report truants to the student’s parents or guardian and the Ron Wood Center. Following a third truancy, the case is referred to the sheriff’s office and the truancy advisory board.

The student and parents can be required,by subpoena if necessary, to attend a board hearing.

It can order the family to sign a contract agreeing to enroll in community programs that range from parenting classes to anger management. Students who breach the agreement can be cited and required to appear in juvenile court. Parents can also face criminal charges.

May was the board’s first chairwoman in 1998. She viewed the board’s mission not as a conduit to the courts, but as a means of keeping students out of the legal system by helping them.

“By the time the family ends up in court, the schools have given those families all sorts of opportunities. The help is there,” May said.

May considers the revised law a success. In the last school year, 300 Carson City students were declared habitual truants. Of those, 10 students and two parents went to court.

“We’re talking a 98 percent success rate of keeping families out of court. The system is working,” she said.

The truancy board reviewed the Winn case, but it did not cite Heather for her absences; she was too young, May said.

Heather was 10 years old. At that age, the onus is on the parent to ensure a child attends school, May said.

As the absences piled up, letters from school expressed concern about the missed days and loss of education. Appointments with Winn were made and attendance contracts were signed.

Heather was declared a habitual truant on three occasions. The family was referred to the Ron Wood Center. Winn enrolled in a parenting class.

Winn said she turned down the center’s offer of counseling for Heather, because she was already in therapy.

Heather enrolled in Mark Twain Elementary School on March 19, 1999. She missed three of the first six days. By then, the District Attorney’s Office was monitoring Heather’s attendance.

May 5, 1999, was like many other days.

Heather missed school. The Winns had returned home from the store when there was a knock at the door at 11:15 a.m. It was a Carson City sheriff’s deputy. He arrested Winn, while Heather looked on.

Winn was booked into jail on two charges related to Heather’s truancy.

Jail is definitely not the place for overweight people, Winn recalls thinking. The clothing didn’t fit, the bunks were uncomfortable and Winn said she suffered a panic attack caused by the jail’s stifling atmosphere and the stress of the arrest.

“Those 10 hours in jail were the longest 10 hours of my life,” she said. “The people were nice to me. I think they felt sorry for me. Most of them wondered why I was in jail.”

Winn emerged from jail unsure how to resolve Heather’s aversion to school, but certain of one thing: “I love my kids, but I wasn’t about to go to jail for them. I can’t do that,” she said, gesturing to a school picture of Heather stuck to her fridge with a magnetic frame.

Winn’s problems were resolved in part with the assignment of Mickie Turner, a social worker with the Department of Human Resources, Division of Child and Family Services, to work on the family’s case.

Turner’s involvement was at the direction of the District Attorney’s Office when the charges were filed. Winn had initially been skeptical. She considered it part of an effort to remove Heather from the home.

In hindsight it was a blessing, she said.

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The Winns’ case of education neglect was unusual for Turner.

Typically her caseload focuses on physical abuse and neglect, but her strategy remained the same, which she describes as “more honey than vinegar.”

She sat down with the family and together they identified the problems and drafted a service contract, which includes goals and specific deadlines.

A combination of a no-nonsense, understanding approach clicked with the family.

“We can’t befriend our clients, but we can be a support,” Turner said. “There are times when we’re the only positive influence in a client’s life.”

It was a relief that someone was finally willing to recognize that Heather’s truancy was a symptom of deep-rooted unhappiness and not sheer obstinacy, Winn said.

Turner couldn’t eliminate the family’s cramped living conditions, conjure up money or transport, but she did listen, offer practical suggestions and, where possible, she helped the family, Winn said.

When Heather flatly refused to attend school, it was Turner who explained to her the penalties her mom would pay if she skipped more school.

It was Turner who drove Winn to the Salvation Army to pay her electricity bill and to doctor appointments.

“She (Turner) helped us get back on track,” Winn said. “She helped me with Heather. Mickie is not just a social worker. She wants to keep families together and not split them apart. She recognized how bonded we are.”

Heather enrolled in Bordewich-Bray Elementary School on Aug. 31, under the newly rezoned school district.

A friend of Winn had raved about fifth-grade teacher David McMasters. Two weeks before school started, Winn called Bordewich-Bray and asked if Heather could enroll in McMasters’ class. Her planning paid off.

Heather’s attendance has been perfect except when the school nurse sent her home with pink eye, Winn said with a sense of pride. A brief bout of lice was dealt with after school.

“Her teacher praises her and lets her know how well she’s doing. Heather needs that every so often,” she said. “Today she’ll get up for school and go, no problem. There is no more stomping and screaming. Heather has learned to control her temper and frustrations.”

On Oct. 26, Winn pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges related to Heather’s truancy. She received a six-month suspended sentence. The District Attorney’s Office dropped the contributory neglect charge.

Two days later, Turner closed her file on Winn. She was optimistic.

In a court-filed document, Turner described Winn as “cooperative and motivated.”

“My initial prognosis for the family was guardedly hopeful. My current prognosis is very good. Both (Heather and Winn) are committed to making school attendance their priority,” she wrote.

There was no conspiracy to remove Winn’s daughter from the home, said Deputy District Attorney Jason Woodbury, who prosecuted the case.

Winn was charged because it was an egregious case of truancy and a mechanism was in place to notify law enforcement, which prior to 1998 hadn’t existed, he said.

Possibly the threat of jail is what forced Winn to tackle Heather’s truancy, Woodbury said. “Nothing seemed to change until it was time to go to trial,” he said.

Whatever Winn’s motive, the district attorney’s acceptance of a suspended sentence versus jail was a positive reflection on Winn’s good-faith effort to ensure her daughter attended school, he said.

“The system worked in the way it was supposed to,” he said.

As Heather settled in at Bordewich-Bray, Winn worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles between September and December, with Job Opportunities in Nevada’s work experience program.

She recently interviewed for a full-time job.

JOIN is a second positive influence in Winn’s life.

“When we look at Nancy, while others see how far she has to go, we see how far she has come,” JOIN Operations Director Carolyn Wilson said.

Winn has honed not only her job skills; she has matured over the past three years, Wilson said.

Over the years, the agency has offered Winn advice on anything from brushing her hair to curbing her temper, Wilson said.

When faced with a problem, Winn no longer throws her hands into the air in despair and flops onto the couch. She’ll look for a solution, Wilson said.

“She learned that you have to take responsibility and, despite what others think, she does want to take responsibilities,” Wilson said. “She has allowed people to help, but she has stuck in there and she has not been discouraged.”

Wilson described Winn as a role model to any one considering giving up.

“I think her daughter has seen her mom trying so hard to change her life, and Nancy has changed. I think all that Nancy has been through has been a good lesson for her daughter, something she has learned from,” Wilson said.