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Mom jailed over truancy died from heart failure

August 14, 2014

READING, Pa. (AP) — A mother of seven who was jailed over her children’s truancy and then was found dead in her cell died of natural causes, a coroner ruled.

The Berks County coroner’s office released its findings on 55-year-old Eileen DiNino on Thursday. An autopsy revealed that DiNino’s high blood pressure contributed to heart failure and that fluid in her lungs also was a factor.

DiNino, of Reading, 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was found dead in her jail cell on June 7, halfway through a two-day sentence. She had been jailed for failing to pay about $2,000 in truancy fines and court costs accrued since 1999 in cases involving several of her children, most recently her boys at a vocational high school.

The judge who sentenced DiNino said days after her death he had reluctantly sent her to jail after she failed to pay the money.

District Judge Dean R. Patton, who described DiNino as “a lost soul,” complained about a broken system that punishes impoverished parents and questioned laws criminalizing such lapses as truancy or failing to pay trash bills.

“This lady didn’t need to be there,” said the judge, who acknowledged losing sleep over her jail cell death. “We don’t do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago.”

More than 1,600 people, mostly women, have been jailed in Berks County over truancy fines since 2000.

Attorney Richard Guida, who handled truancy cases, including DiNino’s, as a Reading School District solicitor for more than a decade, said the cases show “kind of a slice of inner-city life.”

“The people home taking care of the children are mothers,” he said. “Many times, they’re overwhelmed, and some of these kids are no angels.”

The truancy fines might be $75 or less, but the debt can add up over court costs and fees. DiNino’s court file shows a laundry list of court fees for one case alone: $8 for a judicial computer project, $60 for Berks County constables, $10 for postage. And she had been cited dozens of times over the years.

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