No jail for mother over children’s school absence

A judge yesterday spoke of the dilemma he faced in trying to ensure children from a troubled family received an education and whether jailing their mother was necessary to achieve this.

The eldest of the nine children, now 16, missed every school day since September. In 2013-14, he missed 122 of 183 days and in 2014-15 he missed 95 of 182 school days.

Two siblings, a girl, 14 and a boy, 11, have also had long absences from school.

Their mother was given three concurrent 14-day jail sentences at Limerick District Court last July for breaches of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 and yesterday she appealed the severity of the sentence before Judge Tom O’Donnell at Limerick Circuit Court.

Muiris Gavin, solicitor for the Child & Family Agency, said, despite huge resources being deployed, matters had not improved and 11 court adjournments were granted to allow the mother to improve the situation.

Mr Gavin said the eldest boy turned 16 last November and was no longer compelled to attend school.

Three prosecutions were brought in respect of the boy and his sister, who had missed 59 days out of 164 in the 2014-15 school year, and the younger boy, who missed 64 out of 183 days in the 2013-14.

Mr Gavin said the absences were above the 20% bar the agency sets when considering court action.

“Following a number of adjournments, it was hoped matters would improve,” said Mr Gavin. “There was a pattern when an adjournment was given, there would be a spurt of improvement, before things went back to the same.”

Eimear Carey, counsel for the mother, said there was a complex, volatile relationship with the children’s father and, when things were going well, there was an improvement. When the father was not at home, the mother cared for the nine children on her own and had great difficulty with regards to her responsibilities.

Ms Carey said: “Various supports from State agencies did not lead to progress.”

Judge O’Donnell said the dilemma facing the court was that if he failed to jail the mother, the younger children would be deprived of an education. Then, if the mother was in prison, it was possible other agencies would have to deal with the situation. To jail the woman would leave the young children without their mother, which would be unfair to them. The fact the appellant was the mother of a large family, he said, should not enable her to have this as a defence as to her responsibilities.

Judge O’Donnell said he did not disagree with the sentence handed down by the District Court, as somebody had to take responsibility.

Addressing the mother, he said: “I don’t want to send you to prison, I don’t believe any judge would want to send you to prison. It is your children’s future that is at stake and a lack of education will cost them in life.”

He suspended the three concurrent sentences for 12 months.


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