Program helping absent, suspended students needs more funding

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - When the 2016, school year began in Birmingham City Schools and in Tarrant, so did the Helping Families Initiative.

The aim is to keep students in school.

So when there are two unexcused absences or multiple suspensions, the program reaches out, provides an assessment and a plan to find the root cause of the issue and address it.

"Often times, families don't feel comfortable expressing that to school personnel so the people interacting with our kids everyday don't have any idea they're dealing with mental health issues, there may be evidence of sexual trauma in their past, or maybe the power's been turned off and they can't clean their uniform and show up to school in dress code," says Melissa Niven, one of the program coordinators.

Over thirty agencies have partnered with the program to provide resources. Everything from food and transportation assistance, uniforms, counseling for the entire family.

"While the child may be the warning sign that's going on, we're here to help the younger sibling and her boyfriend that are living at home, the disabled uncle in the basement or the grandma that's raising kids," Niven says.

The program operates out of the Jefferson County District Attorney's office. D.A. Danny Carr sees the initiative as a crime fighting tool as well.

"Where there's a direct link between school absences and dropout rate and people who commit crime and end up in a juvenile facility as young kids so we're trying on the front end to be a bridge to that," Carr says.

The program received initial seed money from the state to start last year. And funds have been promised for a portion of this year's budget. But Carr says more is needed to help those who are currently in the program and for down the road.

"We need more because we want to provide more services. We want to expand what we're doing. But we want to make sure that what we're doing is adequate," he says.

Melissa Niven says the program's goal for the first year was to help eight families.

They ended up serving nearly thirty and can see the difference it's making.

"Even our school personnel are seeing a difference because parents are taking attendance seriously," Niven says. "Helping Families is making a difference in Jefferson County."

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