Criminal Justice

A Mom’s Tragic Death Over Missed School Days

A Pennsylvania woman was sent to jail for 48 hours over $2,000 in unpaid fines for her kids’ truancy. Officials found her dead in her cell. What happened?

06.14.14 1:30 AM ET

Can a parent be punished for allowing their student to skip school? In Pennsylvania, it’s not just a crime; it can be a death sentence.

Eileen DiNuno, 55, of Reading, Pennsylvania, had accumulated 55 violations totaling more than $2,000 in fines, according to Think Progress, in the past decade and a half because her children had been missing school. Eventually, because the mother of seven, who still had four children living at home, could not pay the fine, she agreed to serve 48 hours in jail last weekend. However, on Saturday, officials found her dead in her cell.

Police said they don’t believe the death was suspicious. However, an official at the Berks County Coroner’s Office told The Daily Beast that an official cause of death won’t be determined for “a couple of weeks” and only “if we ever get a report back” of DiNino’s autopsy. DiNino was reportedly on blood-pressure medication at the time, but prison officials did not issue her any medicine during the day she was incarcerated.

The judge in the case, Dean Patton, who did not return a request for comment from The Daily Beast, told the Associated Press that DiNino seemed overwhelmed by raising her children and often seemed unkempt.  However, Patton noted that on the day of her sentencing, she appeared in the courtroom in better shape than normal. He said she was wearing clean sweat pants and her glasses were held together with tape. In Patton’s opinion, according to the AP report, “She cared about her kids, but her kids ruled the roost.”

Local officials are already calling for Pennsylvania to examine its laws, which allow imprisonment for nonpayment of fines. Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach told WFMZ, a local television station, “I think there are better ways to deal with nonviolent crimes. I am not even sure quite frankly that things like truancy and parking should be criminal offenses and, frankly, support legislation that would decriminalize those offenses.”

DiNino’s imprisonment, though, was not a rare occurrence. Since the year 2000, 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone for failing to pay truancy fines. Under Pennsylvania law, according to WFMZ, a parent can be sentenced to five days in jail for each violation of the truancy law by a minor in their custody.  Normally, the intent is to get parents who spend their time “partying” out of their late-night habits and more inclined to actually watch their children. In contrast, other jurisdictions only fine students for truancy, not the parents. For example, in 2008, Los Angeles issued 12,000 fines for truancy.

But that’s not the law in Pennsylvania and, in this case though, it ended in tragedy.