“It’s odd,” second grade teacher Ann Jackson* thought, as she watched seven- year-old Sienna walking out of school holding her grandmother’s hand. “Sienna’s grandma seems so attentive and caring. So why does Sienna just disappear for a week or so, and return with no explanation?”
The school is no stranger to children with poor attendance. It primarily serves low-income families, where children are often shuffled from home to home as their parents or caregivers deal with problems like poverty, addiction and homelessness. But Sienna’s home life seemed stable, even idyllic. Every morning and every afternoon Sienna’s grandmother, Agnes, was there walking her back in forth to school, listening to her chatter about her day. Their affection for one another was obvious.
So why did Sienna miss so much school?
Eager to get to the bottom of things, Ann and the school principal approached Agnes. Embarrassed, with tears in her eyes, Agnes told them what was happening:
About every six weeks, Agnes had to send Sienna to her paternal grandmother because she ran out of food and money. Sienna was going to school–just to elementary school across town.
It was hard on Agnes, on Sienna, and on Sienna’s grades. Constantly moving back and forth was disruptive and made continuity in Sienna’s learning nearly impossible. “I know it’s not good for Sienna,” said Agnes, “But going hungry would be even worse. I’m making the best of two bad choices.
Agnes was making this heartbreaking decision, in part because custody of Sienna was an uncertain, tangled legal knot. Sienna’s mother was addicted to opiates, and her father was incarcerated. Her two grandmothers were the only sources of stability in her life, but neither had any kind of legal guardianship status. They knew it would be best, but neither knew how to start, and, most of all, they were fearful that initiating the process would cause Sienna’s mother to retaliate and take Sienna away. They were simply two grandmothers trying their best to hold together this little girl’s life and keep her safe.
The principal and teacher encouraged Agnes to contact Legal Aid’s “Lawyer in the School” program, which matched Legal Aid and pro bono attorneys with student parents or guardians who were experiencing legal problems. They had seen the attorneys help families work through what seemed like insurmountable problems. And they had seen how stabilizing the lives of parents worked wonders for their children.
As luck would have it, a Legal Aid attorney known for her talent as a negotiator met with Agnes and Sienna’s paternal grandmother to hash out a plan. After weeks of discussions with Sienna’s parents and grandparents, he/she was able to settle on a solution that provided a legal status as guardian for Agnes, which in turn allowed her to apply for SNAP (food stamp benefits) and medical benefits for Sienna. With the additional resources now available, Agnes was able to finally make ends meet and keep Sienna full time, with visits to her paternal grandmother.
Best of all, now that Sienna is no longer going back and forth to separate schools, she has proven to be an excellent student, bringing home all A’s on her most recent report card.