Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 13: Truancy in Relation to Dependency and Delinquency

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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The preceding chapters have made it clear that the public school in the great American city of today touches every social problem-the non-supporting father, the tubercular mother, the degraded home, and all the harrassing difficulties that poverty brings into crowded houses in crowded city neighborhoods. Wherever conditions are unfavorable to child life, the schools suffer from non-attendance, truancy, and the violation of school rules, which come with the presence in school of children from extremely poor, undisciplined, or neglected homes. Large numbers of children in the poorer districts of the city are in need of medical attention, are insufficiently clad, and are improperly fed or underfed; and many of these will be troublesome in school. Many others suffer from various physical discomforts and find the prospect of drifting idly and listlessly about the streets and alleys, instead of being subjected to the discipline of school, a temptation impossible to resist. A study of the homes from which the Parental School boys come makes it clear that the conditions which are producing these truant and incorrigible boys are conditions which also make for dependency and delinquency.

The fact that truancy, dependency, and delinquency are the common results of such home condition- as have been described is suggested by the number of truant boys who, before being brought into court as truants, have already been in institutions for delinquent or dependent children. For example, as Table XXV shows, of the 473 boys brought into

(189) court by the Department of Compulsory Education in a single year, 54 had been in court at an earlier date as dependent and 112 had been before the court as delinquent. Some of these cases were "continued" in order that a "truant" petition might be filed, because the boys were not seriously enough delinquent to make it wise to commit them to a delinquent institution or because there was no dependent institution to

Table XXV Number of Truant Boys Brought Into Court During a Single Year with Previous Records of Dependency or Delinquency, Together with Disposition on First Charge*
Disposition Dependent Delinquent
     St. Mary's (Feehanville) 23 ..............
     Glenwood 7 ..............
Other institutions for dependents 2 ..............
     John Worthy School ............ 13
     St. Charles ............ 2
     Paroled 14 52
     Continued 3 39
     Dismissed 2 3
No record of disposition 3 3
Total 54 112

*The data are for the year ending June 30, 1910, the only year for which data were collected.

which they could well be sent. In such cases the decision of the court always turns upon the best opportunity for giving the child proper treatment, without regard to the technical charge against him. The common expression used in the court record of such delinquent or dependent cases was: "The boy was found to have been very irregular in attendance at school, and his case was continued for a truant petition."


It will be recalled that the Parental School was not opened until January, 1902, two and one-half years after the establishment of the juvenile Court. Until the Parental School was opened there was no special institutional provision for truants; and truant boys were therefore brought into court as delinquent, or in one or two instances as dependent, but no child was "found truant" by the court until a place of commitment had been opened. During the year 1899-1900, 57 boys charged with truancy were brought into court as delinquent; in 1900-1901) 33 delinquent boys and one dependent boy were charged either with truancy or incorrigibility in the schoolroom; and between July I, 1901, and the opening of the Parental School in January, 1902, 10 delinquent boys were charged with truancy. The majority of these boys were paroled or committed to the John Worthy School, an institution for delinquent boys, but a few were sent to institutions for dependent children. During the first few years after the founding of the Parental School truant boys were still brought into court on dependent or delinquent petitions, but charged with the specific offense of "truancy."

In fact, if we accept the definition of a "dependent" child as it is found in the juvenile court law, it is clear that many of the truant boys might be correctly termed dependent. In the words of this statute, "dependent" and "neglected" are used synonymously, and a dependent or neglected child is "a child without proper parental care or guardianship, or a child who has a home which by reason of neglect, cruelty, or depravity, on the part of its parents, guardian, or any other person in whose care it may be, is an unfit place for such a child." The tables appearing in chap. x relating to the truant boys who have been committed show how frequently such conditions are found in the homes of the boys who are sent to the Parental School as truants. Occasionally it happens that a boy is transferred directly from the Parental School to some dependent or delinquent institution,

(192) or that truant boys who are on parole are sent to some other institution upon violation of their paroles instead of being returned to the Parental School.

The inter-relation of truancy, delinquency, and dependency is seen in those cases in which conditions in the home have made the development of right conduct on the part of the children extremely difficult. In the case, for example, of one boy who was brought into court at the age of eleven, charged with truancy and violation of the rules and sent to the Parental School, the records showed that he had been brought to court when he was only three years old on a dependent charge. Conditions in the home were terrible: there were nine children; the father had deserted the family more than once; the older brothers were "loafers"; an older sister had been sent to an institution for delinquent girls; the home was filthy, and the whole family drank and fought among themselves. The mother was described by one school principal as a " terrible woman who was known to have used a knife on someone who visited the family." Less than two years after the boy had been brought to court for truancy, he was brought in as delinquent on the charge of stealing, and only a year later he was in court again on the same charge. At the time this inquiry was made the boy was doing fairly well at school, was in the fifth grade and attending school regularly; but there is very slight chance of a good life for a boy who is left in such a home.

In another family from which two boys were sent to the Parental School, both parents were hard drinkers and were cruel to their children. Later the mother died; the father, a cripple, deserted, and the home was broken up. The youngest boy was brought into court when he was twelve years old and in the second grade, and was sent to the Parental School. Before this time he had been in court twice as a dependent, had been sent twice to the County Hospital for treatment, and was once committed to an institution for dependent children.

(194) After nine months at the Parental School, it was thought best to transfer him to the school for the feeble-minded, so he escaped delinquency by being committed to that institution.

In another case a boy of thirteen who was supposedly attending the third grade in school was brought to court for persistent truancy and sent to the Parental School. The boy's early history threw a great deal of light on his conduct. He was the youngest of six children. The mother died when he was very small; and the father, an inefficient workman, earned very low wages, drank heavily, and took no care of the children. The youngest boy was first brought into court when he was ten years old as a dependent child without proper home care, and was sent to an institution for dependent children. Two years later he was brought into court as a delinquent and paroled; but within a few months he was brought in again as a dependent and placed under the care of a probation officer. By this time he was thirteen and he was soon sent to the Parental School. Not long after being paroled from the Parental School he was brought in again as delinquent for stealing coal from the tracks and money from stores, and was sent to an institution for delinquent boys, where he was at the time of our inquiry.

One boy who had been committed to a dependent institution three years before he was sent to the Parental School had a younger brother who was for several years in an institution for dependent children. The father died of tuberculosis, and the mother drank and was immoral. The family lived for some time in one room, very dirty and poorly furnished, in a very dirty rear tenement. At the age of thirteen the older boy was brought to court by the Department of Compulsory Education and sent to the Parental School. He bad reached the fourth grade in school, his deportment was good, and lie was doing fairly well with his studies, but he was staying away from school -- a dangerous practice in demoralizing surroundings. He was kept in the Parental School only three months; but

(194) after he was paroled, conditions at home were so bad that there was no chance of improvement and a few weeks later he was returned to the Parental School for violation of his parole and was kept there until he was fourteen. Six months after his release, he was brought into court for refusing to work and for not staying at home. The case was continued, but two months later when he was charged with forging a check for $5 he was sent to the John Worthy School, where he stayed for seven months. It is interesting to note that although the mother attributes the boy's delinquency to the fact that she had to work and could not watch him, the truant officer states emphatically that the boy had no chance with an immoral, drinking mother and a degraded home.

In a large number of other cases in which the child escaped being brought into court as dependent, he came from a miserable and degraded home, where he was neglected in many ways. One of the first evidences of this neglect was his irregularity or bad conduct at school. But the appearance in court for truancy is followed later by dependency or delinquency.

For example, John -- was brought into court both for truancy and violation of school rules at the age of eleven, when he was in the second grade at school. The boy was the fifth child in a family of seven children, of whom the eldest was twenty, the youngest four. The father was a carpenter and belonged to the union, but was a drunken loafer and gambler who could not support his family. He was always out of a job, sent his little girls to saloons for whiskey, beat his wife and abused her so that she said she " would rather be beaten than hear him talk to her." He had deserted more than once and had been several times before the court for non-support. A brother older than John, who had been at the Chicago Parental School, was like the father: he loafed, smoked, and ill-treated his mother. He was known in the neighborhood as "a little tough." Various social agencies were interested in the family;

(195) and the younger boy, who was always liked by the teacher and the Pupils but who had a bad temper and was led by his older brothers, was finally sent to the Chicago Parental School to get him away from home conditions. The mother was interviewed at a store where she was working. She was interested in the children and wished something could be done to make the fifteen-year-old boy go to school. Although, when interviewed, she had a separate maintenance, she was much concerned about getting rid of her "old man," and she said she wished she "could kill him off."

Equally dependent were two brothers sent to the Parental School because of truancy, due to neglect in the home: John and Joseph A_____, two illiterate Polish boys, were brought into court at the age of thirteen and eleven respectively. The court record showed that the boys had been extremely irregular in attendance and that John, the elder, who was in the second grade, had attended school only occasionally during the previous year. Joseph, the younger, who was in the first grade, had been absent oftener than he had been present. The principal's report said that the father drank and that the mother was insane, although she had not been removed from the home. When the family was visited, the mother and two boys were found at home quarreling. The home was a very dirty, rear tenement, reached through a long and narrow passageway between the buildings. The neighborhood was dismal, dirty, partly unpaved, deserted, and there was a stone-cutting establishment near with yards covering several blocks. The woman, who was scolding the children because there was no food, or wood, or coal, cried and put her hands on the cold stove. Both boys made fun of her, saying "the old woman hadn't any sense." The older boy could write nothing except his name; the younger then in a parochial school would not tell the grade. Both the boys and the mother were cases for institutional care. The father drank and neglected them all.


There are many cases of boys who have " brought themselves up," as one deserted mother expressed it. A little Italian boy, whose mother was dead and father deserted, was supported by an older brother who earned enough to pay their board with an aunt. She had nine children of her own to look after and said she really had not the time to see that this boy went to school, for getting him to school had come to mean "chasing him off the streets and away from the alleys." Another motherless truant boy had a father with a criminal record who had deserted his children, an older sister who was leading an immoral life, and an older brother who had been in the State Reform School at Pontiac, but who was the sole guardian and support of his little brother. When the boy was eleven years old he was brought in on a truancy charge and sent to the Parental School, where he was kept for nine months. His school reports showed an improvement after his return, and his brother said that, although he was "wild and crazy" before going, he came back steadied and much improved physically. The brothers later lived in a rooming-house in the heart of the vice district and worked as teamsters in a coal yard directly back of a saloon. The woman in charge of the rooming-house drank, but the boys seemed to have escaped contamination. In the case of another boy the father was thoroughly worthless and made the mother go out to work; the mother finally got a divorce and married again, but the step-father was no better, and the mother was obliged to go out washing much of the time. This boy spent a year and a half in an orphan asylum at one time, but was attending the public school when he was brought into court and sent to the Parental School. He was then ten years old and in the third grade at school, and was described as "dirty, dull, and ill-tempered," although apparently in good physical condition.

Another boy, who was brought to court as a truant and schoolroom incorrigible, was the youngest of eight children with

(197) a mother who drank heavily and who had led all the seven older children into bad habits. This boy was said not to be "adapted for school work," but after five months at the Parental School he returned, not to his own degraded home, but to a kind and competent aunt who was able to provide for him and to protect him.

The dependent cases that have been given are some of them also cases in which the boy became delinquent. Many similar cases might be discussed, but it seems scarcely necessary to illustrate so obvious a fact as the close connection between delinquency and truancy when truancy is the direct outcome of a bad home or of neighborhood conditions. The undisciplined and undirected boy who plays truant to go to nickel shows and who " chases the streets " soon gets in with the gang that lies in wait like Satan himself in districts where children are so numerous and means of recreation so limited; the loafing on the streets leads to genuine marauding expeditions, and the boy is soon in court again and is technically no longer truant but has become delinquent.

In the case of an Italian boy, one of six children, most of whom were born in Italy, the father was a laborer, frequently out of work, and the mother a "pants finisher" who worked very hard to earn enough for food. The family lived in three very dirty rooms in a miserably dilapidated rear tenement with steep dark stairways. The street on which they lived was near the river; the houses were tumble-down, and there were in the neighborhood many saloons and cheap places of amusement. This boy got in with some bad boys when he was very small, and was brought to court as delinquent when he was only seven. His parents were unable to get him away from bad company although they said that they punished him most severely! When he was thirteen years old and in the fourth grade in the public school, he was finally brought to court as an habitual truant and sent to the Parental School. He was there five months, and the mother thought him greatly improved; but

(198) he was soon in court again, this time for stealing, and was sent to the John Worthy School.

An interesting case is that of a boy who was a younger child in a family of seven children whose father was dead and whose mother was immoral. The family lived in a rear basement apartment, dark, dirty, and poorly furnished, in a poor neighborhood near the railroad tracks. The children were greatly neglected, and one of the sisters was sent to an institution for delinquent girls. This boy was first brought into court when he was twelve years old, charged with stealing junk from stores. He was also attending school very irregularly, and a few months later he was brought into court again as an habitual truant and sent to the Parental School, where he remained fourteen months. The boy enjoyed the military drill and liked the school so much that he asked to be sent back after he left. Soon after he was fourteen and too old to go back to the Parental School, he was brought into court as delinquent, charged with incorrigibility and running away from home, and was sent to the John Worthy School. He was one of a large number of boys from poor and neglected homes who have their first experience of a disciplined, well-ordered life in the Parental School, and many of them respond to its influence as this boy did, and would like to stay.

In one home which had been visited by the truant officer ten times within two years, the boy who was truant was the youngest of five children and seemed always to have been in poor physical condition. The home was very poor, the father a day laborer, frequently out of work, and the mother dead. The boy had no home care or training. He was said by the principal to be one of the "worst types of confirmed truants drifting into crime." When he was brought in off the streets, he stayed only until recess. When he was eleven years old and in the third grade of the public school, he was brought into court as an habitual truant and sent to the Parental School.

(199) After he had been there five months, he was sent home on parole, but was returned a month later and was kept four months longer. His older sister, who is a very indifferent guardian, said that the boy "was better" for a month after his return, but soon got in trouble again, was brought into court as delinquent, and was later sent to the John Worthy School.

In one family from which two boys were brought into court, the father, a brutal, immoral man, deserted the family and went off with a disreputable woman. The mother, who had obtained a divorce from her husband, did scrubbing and washing away from home. She was devoted to the two sons, but weak, overindulgent, and unable to control them; she used to try to bribe the boys to go to school, but they took her money and played truant. The older boy has been in Glenwood as a dependent, in the John Worthy School as a delinquent, and was afterward returned to court on a delinquent charge. When the younger boy was eleven years old and only in the third grade at school, he was brought into court for habitual truancy; he was said to be a cigarette fiend, congenitally defective, and morally weak. The case was continued, and four months later he was committed to the Chicago Parental School. He was later transferred to an institution for dependent boys.

This series of illustrative cases might be almost indefinitely prolonged. A sufficient number of examples has, however, been given to emphasize the fact that conditions in the home that lead to neglect of the children, whether the causes of neglect be immorality, drunkenness, incompetence, ignorance, or extreme poverty, are likely to lead to interference by the state with parental authority. Whether the child is declared truant, dependent, or delinquent is largely a matter of accident. In any event, the child becomes the ward of the state, and parental control over the child is supplemented or superseded as the child's needs may dictate.


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