Target 8: Accused of Neglect, Father of 10 Hoping to Clear Name
UNION, Mo. - The letter came tucked in a white envelope, postmarked on July 19 from a city located an hour away in an entirely different county. As Jason Brown began to unseal the envelope, trouble became apparent at the sight of the bold heading at the top of the page.
"CHUCK GRAY. ATTORNEY AT LAW."
The words on the page made little sense. This letter came from a man who wanted to "zealously defend" his rights and give him his "day in court with an experienced trial attorney." The letter ended with an abrupt disclaimer at the very bottom of the page: "THE CHOICE OF A LAWYER IS AN IMPORTANT DECISION AND SHOULD NOT BE BASED SOLELY UPON ADVERTISEMENTS."
Jason Brown is a father of 10, an affable, passionate 38-year-old who made jokes about how broke he'd be after he pays for his daughters' six weddings. He is a volunteer firefighter and licensed emergency medical technician with career ambitions of becoming a teacher, just weeks away from starting college classes to earn his teaching certificate.
He is not a criminal--at least not to his knowledge.
But this letter from Chuck Gray, Attorney at Law, seemed to suggest he had done something wrong. An Internet search confirmed his fears. According to Missouri's online court database, CaseNet, a prosecutor in Montgomery County had charged Brown for violating Missouri's compulsory attendance statute. Authorities had accused him of allowing his seven-year-old daughter, Madison, to miss too much school. In legal terms, he "knowingly failed to cause a child under his control or custody to attend a required academic program on a regular basis."
Suddenly, it began to make sense. On March 14, a sheriff's deputy had knocked on Brown's door in Jonesburg after receiving a notification from the school regarding absences. According to the probable cause statement, "Mr. Brown was upset I came to the house to check on the status of his child... from this day on he would call every day to advise he brought his kids to school." Still, Brown said he explained the situation and showed documentation to the deputy, and he said he was told it "shouldn't be an issue."
Four months later, however, it became an issue--in the form of a Class C misdemeanor. Documents show the court had tried to serve his summons to his old address in Montgomery County, but the Browns moved from Jonesburg to Union in the spring. The summons never found their way to his new home.
A conviction could mean the end of his teaching career before it even begins. Just think about what they'd say, Brown thought.
Jason Brown, the man who wants to be a teacher but neglected his own children.
"I was angry," Brown said. "You'll bleep out how I really feel."
Ever since that fateful letter arrived in July, more information has leaked surrounding Brown's case. In addition to the potential black mark on his teaching record, the charge carries a possible jail term of fewer than 15 days or a fine not to exceed $300, and Brown's arraignment is now set for Thursday. Brown said there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this, like the fact that Madison's attendance records show that excused vacations, personal illness and family illness account for close to three-quarters of the 18 days she missed during her first grade year.
But Brown also said nobody will listen to his side of the story. His calls to Nathan Carroz, the assistant prosecuting attorney in Montgomery County who filed the charges, have gone unreturned. Carroz declined comment to KOMU 8 News for this story, as did the sheriff's department and the superintendent of the Montgomery County R-II school district.
So, without much argument, Brown will appear in a courtroom in Montgomery County later this week with his family by his side.
"You're either a bad parent or you're not. You can't be a good parent to nine children and a bad parent to just one," Brown said. "I don't know what more I could do as a parent."
Prosecutors have not charged his wife, Amanda, but as Madison's mother, she says it's her burden, too.
"I feel like they're unfairly picking on my husband," she said. "This whole mess is just something I never thought I'd be in."
That's why Jason and Amanda Brown said they're doing everything they can to let the evidence do the talking.
WHAT THE DOCUMENTS SAY
On the same day KOMU 8 News inquired about Brown's pending case, Carroz amended the charges. The charge remained a "violation of compulsory school attendance for a child," but he amended the time frame of his office's accusations against Brown. The first charging document, based on the probable cause statement filed by Deputy Michael Gouveia, originally incorporated Madison's absences from Apr. 6, 2011 to Apr. 4, 2012. In all, the probable cause statement said Jonesburg Elementary School notified the sheriff's department about 31 absences during that span from the end of Madison's kindergarten year April 4 of her first grade year.
Carroz's amendment to the charge means Madison's missed days as a kindergarten student no longer matter in legal terms. Now, the new charging document claims Brown's misdemeanor took place between Aug. 1, 2011 and April 4, 2012. In an effort to disprove accusations of negligence, Jason and Amanda Brown are now scrambling to explain those 18 absences with medical records and doctor's notes.
According to records, 13 of those 18 days involve either a family vacation, which Brown said the school approved prior to his family leaving, or illness stemming from either a family member or Madison's intestinal condition. Madison, diagnosed by Dr. Lisa Ryan with gastroesophageal reflux disease, missed consecutive days in December for a fever, according to the records, and she missed days in January and February for two personal doctor's appointments and her father's trip to the hospital (Jan. 10).
As for the eight days of vacation, seven occurred during the Browns' family trip to Georgia in March. Jason Brown said he planned the vacation during the non-peak season to save money, noting that with a family so large, he could not otherwise afford to take his children on a trip.
"I had the $1,200 to go and stay the week. I didn't have the $2,600," Brown said.
After those absences, five days remain unaccounted. The school denoted three of those five days by assigning a "NO CALL, NO NOTE" description, meaning an "unverified" absence. Moreover, it considered seven of Madison's absences "unverified," including the two final days of the Brown's vacation to Georgia.
In one case, records show the school sent Madison home on March 14 at 12:40 p.m. for vomiting. Jonesburg Elementary policy reads that students showing signs of "vomiting, diarrhea, or fever more than 100 degrees" must be sent home, and then "should not return to school until he/she is symptom-free for 24 hours." However, when Madison did not attend school on March 15 - fewer than 24 hours after she threw up - the school marked her with an unverified, "NO CALL, NO NOTE" absence.
The school also left the notes section for two missed days in Nov. and Dec. 2011 blank.
"I don't think anybody is necessarily out to get anyone else here," Brown said, "but I think the problem here is that everybody is just so busy that everything has become black and white."
"You're either guilty or you're not guilty. It doesn't matter, there's no reason or rhyme for anything anymore. They take everything at face value. But you know, life is not as open and shut as a book."
It's a mystery too as to who reported Brown's absences to the sheriff's department. Montgomery County R-II Superintendent Michael Gray declined an on-camera interview, but he told KOMU 8 News reports can come from either mandated reporters for child negligence or automated letters to the sheriff's department. Those letters, Gray said, are based on a certain threshold of absences at the school's discretion. He said the school only makes the report, and the sheriff's department then investigates based on the circumstances.
These situations don't arise much in Missouri, according to the Department of Social Services. That department found 57 substantiated conclusions for educational neglect in the state in 2011, and only two substantiated conclusions occurred in Montgomery County between 2003 and 2010.
Brown said he's bothered by that term: neglect. He cited his family's educational background as evidence of its commitment to education- his two oldest children began classes at nearby East Central College last month, and he said he moved to Union partly to get Madison more help for her learning disability in a larger school district. Amanda used to work as a special education teacher in Springfield, so she said she saw cases of neglect first-hand from troubled families in her former school district.
"There were a lot of days when the parents couldn't even get the kids to school because the mom didn't feel like getting them out of bed to get them on the bus. Silly things like that," Amanda Brown said. "But I don't ever recall, even then, us going after the parents of those kids. I don't think it's right for us to be charged, or other parents who are out there who do try their best to get their kids to school."
"We're being picked on."
"I'M A GOOD DAD"
Eight of Brown's children live under one roof in a quiet subdivision in the outskirts of the St. Louis metropolitan area, which means the television is forever tuned to Disney Channel and almost all of the kids share bedrooms with one another. On this particular sunny summer day, the family is celebrating the birthday of the middle child, Abbey, who turned 12 years old. Jason bought a cookie cake for the family with just enough pieces to feed everybody. Patiently, the children wait their turn, even though five-year-old Logyn starts to look a little eager at the back of the line behind Tyler (15), Ericka (6) and Olivia (4).
They are mostly oblivious to the fact their father will fight this misdemeanor in court. They are oblivious to the consequences a conviction could have on their father's teaching career and their family in general.
"Nobody wants to hire somebody who already more or less is on probation," Brown said. "If you're told that you're a bad parent or you don't work well with children, that's a big deal. That's life changing."
Even with his arraignment looming, Brown has no choice but to trudge along. No choice but to do his homework each night as he works toward his teaching certificate; no choice but to laugh hysterically at Madison as she wipes the icing from her sister's birthday cake off her face.
Court case or not, Jason Brown still wants the world to know he's a good father.
"I don't ever claim to be the greatest dad on the planet, but I'm proud of the fact that all of my kids know I love them very much," Brown said. "It's a lot of fun having 10 kids."
"It's a gift that not many people want to have, but it's something I wouldn't change. I wouldn't do it any differently."