Truancy often the 'outcome of a bigger problem'
It's 11am on a Tuesday and Daniel, 12, lies on the couch playing Minecraft on the Playstation.
He is a truant.
He and his mother want him in school, but he was not enrolled for six weeks while trying to find a school that could cater to his autism and ADHD.
His mother "begged for help" from several agencies, but to no avail.
"This has been the toughest year for us ever.
"I didn't expect handouts for Daniel, but I did expect more support than we got."
When she got a call from Te Ora Hou's truancy services, she said "come at me and help".
Daniel often only sleeps a couple of hours a night. When he isn't sleeping, his single mum has to be awake too.
"If school was happening I would have a break. It's the one thing that can be a constant in his life."
Daniel is back in a mainstream classroom for an hour three days a week. Despite being funded for 11 hours, finding an available teacher aide is proving a challenge.
Skipping school. Wagging. Skiving off.
These truancy phrases elicit the idea that teens are frolicking away from class with a mischievous grin on their faces ready to spend a blissful day off.
Some families are battling poverty so dire that school is the least of their problems. Often truancy officers are the first agency to see inside the homes of desperate families, and school attendance cannot be helped until the family is. They see severe mental health issues, children overwhelmed by unmanaged screen time, and intergenerational truancy.
According to the latest Ministry of Education attendance survey, more than 76,000 students are absent from school each day.
From 630,000 students, the unjustified absence rate is 4.5 per cent, just below the record level of 4.6 per cent in 2014.
The frequent truant rate – students unjustifiably absent for three or more days – also rose in 2016 from 1.2 to 1.4 per cent.
Stuff spent the day with Canterbury's attendance advisers – historically known as truancy officers – meeting with families, students, schools, and knocking on doors in an effort to locate truant students.
The term "officer" has been phased out. It's not the kind of hardline message the service wants to portray.
Tania Wilson is one of two advisers working with the 120 non-enrolled cases in Canterbury, where children have dropped off all school rolls completely.
She has a couple of special needs cases like Daniel.
"It adds another layer of challenge to our role."
She also has a couple of cases that are more than two years old.
"One is a young boy who hasn't been in school for two years and no-one can locate him.
"We did at one stage wonder if he even existed, but he does."
She categorises him as missing.
The other is a young girl whose mother is refusing any support.
Often when Wilson calls families, she is met with relief.
But about 2 per cent of the time she is seen as the big, bad "authorities" and families will not engage.
During a midday "cold call", Wilson finds no-one home after navigating a large gate and large but luckily loveable dog.
A Notice of Referral for Non-enrolment at School notice is left at the door. It quotes the Education Act section about all children being required to attend school until their 16th birthday.
While support is the number one goal, the possible involvement of police and the courts is outlined.
"I know it's mandated by a law, but it's more than that. It's just getting people to understand that sometimes," says Wilson.
In the last four years in Canterbury, only one truancy case went to court.
Hagley Community College deputy principal Rowan Milburn says truancy is often ingrained in families, but it is "only ever an outcome of a bigger problem".
"I think people's experience of truancy is quite negative."
Schools try to do as much as they can themselves, but she finds Te Ora Hou "invaluable".
"Attendance is so resource intensive. Neither of us can work individually to make a difference."
Grandmother Anna Clare has taken on the challenging task of making sure her grandson Phoenix, 10, goes to school every day.
It was so difficult for a single mother to cope with alone that Clare packed up and moved her life to help out.
"There was just this sense of hopelessness."
His mother could have been prosecuted, and even imprisoned, but "he still wouldn't go to school".
Even a ride to school in a police car did not help.
"It just felt like there was nothing we could do."
Experts and family are still trying to get to the bottom of why Phoenix became a truant, but it is largely to do with his sleeping patterns. He would be awake all night, and asleep during the day. He once went up to 36 hours without sleep.
He watches TV and YouTube and will "whack himself on the head to keep himself awake".
Sleep has always been a problem for him. After the earthquakes, he became a lot more fearful, Clare says.
"Because he is such a big boy, you have to keep reminding yourself he is only 10."
Despite a "flashpoint of anger that sits just below the surface", he had always been a good boy at school. He just did not want to go after being up all night.
"School just didn't really fit with those kind of hours."
He became angry and withdrawn, and refused to get out of bed.
As a boy "the size of a 15-year-old" his mother and grandmother had no chance of overpowering him.
"Physically you couldn't move him."
Te Ora Hou was called in after he was taken off the roll.
After eight months of no school, and sporadic schooling before that, Phoenix has now been attending for a month.
"He doesn't love going in the morning, but loves it when he's there. Which is huge. We're really happy about that."
Finding the right school to reengage with the boy was a hurdle, but they have now found the "best possible place for him".
The school is welcoming and gives him a sense of belonging, "which he really needed".
The hardest part of having a truant child in the family is finding services that can help, and navigating long waiting lists.
"You do feel so alone."
"It's stressful and often it feels like it's easier to just go, 'oh whatever'.
He undertook therapy for eight weeks to help him establish routines, good behaviour, and sleep patterns.
"That was the big thing, getting sleep patterns back into line."
But it still "feels too good to be true".
Clare still doesn't trust that he will go to school every day, and has a phrase for whether she can commit to daily plans. "Phoenix willing, I will be there."
"He woke up one day and said, 'but it's raining, I never go to school when it's raining'. I said, 'Oh yes, you do'.
His grandmother is tougher on him now, even if he is up until 4am.
Clare said his truancy adviser, Tane, had been "absolutely brilliant".
Even Phoenix admits, "what is cool about Tane is he got me back to school".
Tane knew establishing a relationship with Phoenix was the most important first step.
"Rather than have him palmed off to someone else, I offered to continue on the journey."
"It's been a big one."
Targeting kids as young as Phoenix is a lot more effective than trying to reengage them in their mid-teens, he says.
Colleague Junior Taula works with about 32 children between Rangiora and Southbridge, giving "150 per cent to every child".
"I always say to parents, 'I'm a father first'."
"I hope when my kids grow up there would be someone that would do it for them."
He has never worked with a level of severity as one boy, James,13.
His anxiety meant he fought going to school since about age 9.
Taula spent his time sitting with James, listening, and trying a few ways to ease him back into school.
James' mother Jacqui Jarry said he had always had trouble going to school.
Previous schools had not necessarily given up on James, but just did not know what to do.
When James got older, his mental health resulted in truancy. His primary school felt forced to unenrol him.
"It became a really horrible, horrible experience."
When truancy services first got involved, he would throw things at staff and police were called.
Then he was finally diagnosed with separation anxiety.
"He behaved this way because he was so scared."
"I learned how to handle James and how to calm him and calm myself." Prior to that he would get violent and she would have to call in police.
But Taula had "turned things around for James" after first spending hours getting to know him a few times a week.
Then he would drive him to school, but not necessarily even go inside. If he felt up to it, they would visit the school's counselling building.
After two months, he is now slowly increasing hours at Hagley Community College, which the school had been understanding about.
"He wants to be a regular member of his class. He wants to be a normal child," Jarry says.
To help with being a good role model, Jarry has started her own Ara course.
"Because I'm not home, he doesn't want to be home by himself. He knows the way to overcome that is to go to school."
Jarry hopes no-one feels they have to hide or feel ashamed to have children they struggle to get to school.
"There are people who can help."
"For a long time it felt like there was nobody."
"The child is looked at like they're naughty, and the parent feels like they're not good enough."
Taula can see improvements with James.
"He said, I will always say it was Junior that saved my life. That's huge."
Hagley Community College student Reuben Sepulona, 16, is one of Taula's success cases.
"I kind of had a low attendance rate at school."
"I was just not feeling confident enough in myself, and family issues as well."
He and Taula talked through those issues, often over burgers.
Six-foot-five Taula can "physically get any kid to school", but finds it more effective to get to the root of the problem.
Sometimes issues appear "a great, great mountain" to teenagers, so they need to be supported through that.
It takes "a whole lot of time, patience and understanding".
For Reuben it was about raising his motivation.
"I've noticed a turnaround in the way he thinks."
He finds it worth maintaining a connection with past truants after they turn 16, even if in his own time.
"Usually when youth are close to 16 a lot of authorities switch off. But nah, I'm not that guy."
Reuben has exams coming up, and says he is "mostly" at school now.
"I know what I want to do. I just need to be more confident to reach my potential."
He is considering doing a diesel mechanics course next year, and knows which subjects he needs to complete to do so.
Sometimes truants are just "getting up to no good". But most have a reason, Reuben says.
"A lot goes on in other people's lives. You can't judge someone just by their attendance or something. They might be going through a tough time."