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The Denver Post published an article today on Denver truancy court, and on the importance of diagnosing the problem with a child who is chronically truant rather than just punishing the violation of the law (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16425102?source=pop).  As DPS truancy attorney Amber Elias put it, “School attendance is only a symptom. The purpose of truancy court is to identify what the disease is and how to address that.”

A good example of how important that is can be found in the case of 15 year old Louis Pollack-Trujillo, whose truancy was a direct result of an undiagnosed depression anxiety disorder. “I wanted to go to school; I just didn’t want to go in the building,” he said. “The rooms felt too full, and there was too much going on.”

There is a movement underway in child and family services, called “Systems of Care” (SOC), which integrates and coordinates child-oriented services and agencies across the spectrum, including schools, juvenile justice, and county health, mental health, family, and social services. Both federal and state legislation (including in Colorado) is making it easier to “blend and braid” different funding streams (traditionally difficult to do, due to the precise discrete reporting requirements of each program), so that services can be designed as an integrated package for each child and family. By doing so, we can prevent the problems that fester and grow in the absence of such proactive attention.

This is just one dimension of the choice we face as a nation: Whether we want to be the kind of people who justify failing to do the best we can to address the problems that kids face, and by doing so prevent the problems that ensue from failing to provide kids with an education, to address debilitating mental illnesses, to provide health and mental health care services, to address abuse and neglect issues, to address substance abuse issues by the children or their parents, to address truancy and other juvenile justice issues, and to address all of these as parts of a single whole.

Those who chant the mantra of “less government,” without taking into account the legitimate demands that government alone can adequately meet, are not only contributing to higher rates of adult non-productivity and public dependency, associated higher rates of crime, and the intergenerational reproduction of these same problems in a cycle of perpetual costly dysfunctionality, but are also costing tax-payers far more in the long-run by declining to invest in far less expensive early interventions rather than incurring the far more expensive costs of reactive but ineffective “solutions” like incarceration and welfare. By refusing to use government as a precisely targeted proactive tool addressing specific issues, we are trapped into using it as a blunt and costly reactive necessity.

It’s like failing to maintain upkeep on a house or car, allowing it to deteriorate instead, at far greater expense to the home or car owner. It’s just plain dumb. And in this case, the deterioration of the “house” we’re talking about not only costs us, but involves enormous human suffering, suffering which has detrimental rippling effects throughout society.

The choice exists on many levels: Whether to try to resolve conflicts or pay the costs of their eruption; whether to try to identify and treat mental and emotional disorders, or to wait until those who suffer them impose costs and suffering on others; whether to find and address the causes of problems, or turn a blind eye and only deal with the results of not having confronted those problems affirmatively and proactively.

The rest of the developed world has very definitely and clearly selected the former strategy of confronting problems proactively, and have far better success at diminishing violent crime and infant mortality, improving social mobility, reducing incarceration rates, and, in general, spending more of their public resources on improving the quality of life rather than paying for the failure to do so. Isn’t it time we joined the modern world as well?

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