TAMPA — When a child doesn't show up, the school phones home. After 15 unexcused days, the state calls it truancy.
A 14-year-old Tampa girl has gone well beyond that, missing 85 of 113 school days this year, and about 850 since kindergarten. Because of it, her mother, Charlotte Fair, 45, was put behind bars without bail more than a week ago.
"This is a very extreme case," said school district social worker Pat Crosby.
But family and a school social worker agree the case isn't one of a parent who can't control a wayward teenager; instead, it's a sad and unusual story of a mother's intense attachment.
It began before the girl was born, Russell Fair said, when his wife was pregnant with their son.
Ryan Jeremiah Fair was born with cerebral palsy. The family believes it was caused by Lyme disease Mrs. Fair contracted through a tick bite. Ryan couldn't walk or talk or eat on his own, and Mrs. Fair was his full-time caretaker for 15 years.
She got used to having a child need her. Then the boy died. "That's when everything started," said Russell Fair. "I think she was lonely." He spoke reluctantly about his separated wife, and on the condition that their daughter and her school not be identified.
Mrs. Fair, through jail officials, declined an interview request.
But Crosby, the social worker, said she too noticed that the absences appear to stem from attachment issues following Ryan's 2003 death.
After that happened, the couple's two girls would often skip school, Russell Fair said. Sometimes they said they were sick, but many times it seemed mom and the girls didn't want to leave each other.
"It was tough on her," Russell Fair said of his wife. "I think it was just too easy to stay home than get up and get the kids to school."
Russell Fair admits he should have made them go.
Things got more complicated when the couple separated and Mrs. Fair moved out with the girls, Russell Fair said. "I knew they were missing some school, but I had no idea," he said.
The 14-year-old girl is in sixth grade, two years behind her peers. It's unclear how much homeschooling may have taken place.
The oldest daughter, now 23, dropped out of high school, Russell Fair said. That daughter, who lives in Carrollwood with her mother, declined to comment.
Russell Fair said the severity of the situation became clear when Mrs. Fair was arrested in September on a charge of driving under the influence. Her breath test showed no alcohol, but she told deputies she'd taken oxycodone, an arrest affidavit states.
Deputies turned the case over to the State Attorney's Office, which sought Mrs. Fair's arrest. When deputies went to the house in January to take her into custody, she refused to open the door, and they added a charge of resisting arrest, records show.
That, plus failure to pay $417 in fines, was a violation of Mrs. Fair's probation for an October charge of failing to ensure her daughter went to school.
Mrs. Fair was taken into custody at a court hearing on Feb. 25.
She remains at the Hillsborough County jail on Falkenburg Road. County Judge Margaret Courtney denied bail. Her next hearing is scheduled for April 7.
The Department of Children and Families placed the daughter in custody of her father.
DCF spokesman Terry Field said the Fair family was investigated in 2002, but the case was closed when agents found no indicators of abuse. Field couldn't release any information about the investigation, including what prompted it or how long it was open.
Truancy alone isn't enough to warrant a DCF abuse or neglect probe, Field said.
Crosby said that can be frustrating for school social workers.
When a child misses dozens of days, that borders on what Crosby calls "educational neglect."
She said such cases generally raise suspicions of family dysfunction or substance abuse.
Sometimes the school warnings and offers of counseling just start piling up. Crosby said the Fair family's file is 3 inches thick.
The last resort is a jail cell.
Crosby said truancy charges are not rare.
About 200 serious cases were referred to her this year to determine whether they warrant charges, she said. That's out of thousands of current truancy cases across the whole school district.
But the first misdemeanor is the wakeup call for most folks, Crosby said.
She called this case particularly severe, the worst of the school year so far.
Russell Fair considers it a new chance for his daughter.
The girl, petite enough to fit in with younger kids, wants to be a marine biologist. For now, she's taking virtual classes on a laptop at home, Russell Fair said. But he hopes to get his daughter back in the classroom with other students next year. He said she's worried about middle school cliques and boys and wearing the right clothes, but she'll be okay.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386.