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When he was first connected to Legal Counsel for Youth and Children (LCYC) by his probation officer, sixteen-year-old Chad had broken into a car to stay out of the rain, landing him in juvenile detention. Chad’s LCYC attorney met him there a few hours after the referral was received. Chad was not welcome at home and his only support was his grandmother, a fragile, elderly woman who lived in an apartment. LCYC met with his grandmother and the apartment manager. Unfortunately, the manager refused to allow Chad to stay with his grandmother due to his criminal history and threatened to evict the grandmother if Chad moved in. LCYC helped Chad get into a shelter bed close to a community college with a GED program. Chad and his attorney met with an educational advocate his first morning at the shelter. Chad had been disengaged from school for quite some time; he is now excited for his new educational program.
Youth homelessness and juvenile justice are not separate issues, but rather offer overlapping challenges and opportunities. Missed Opportunities, a recent national study on youth homelessness, showed that nearly half of homeless young people had been in juvenile detention, jail, or prison. Youth without stable housing, who are also involved in the juvenile justice system, often face barriers that create a cycle of homelessness and detention that can be exceedingly difficult to break.
First, without stable housing the youth may not receive notice of upcoming hearings, and his or her failure to appear may result in a warrant and more time in detention. Second, youth without access to a consistent caregiver and stable housing are unable to access community-based alternatives to incarceration. Third, many young people exit juvenile detention and incarceration facilities into homelessness. Sometimes parents or relatives are unable or unwilling to provide for their children. Often, Child Protective Services declines to engage proactively or provide emergency placements for adolescents on the street. For many youth, involvement with the juvenile justice system increases their risk of experiencing homelessness in the future.
There are tremendous opportunities to intervene with youth involved in the juvenile justice system to assure they have stable housing environments and prevent what could become a lifetime of homelessness with all the other negative outcomes and instead set them on a more positive trajectory. One way of meeting this opportunity is to provide holistic legal advocacy to youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Holistic legal advocacy requires youth-directed attorneys to (1) go beyond the date and facts surrounding the alleged offense to understand the underlying dynamics and challenges faced by the youth and his or her family and (2) collaborate with other service providers, family and community members, to build a diverse support network for the youth. Chad’s story above captures holistic advocacy and its potential effect on positive futures.
Efforts to Scale Holistic Legal Advocacy
In an effort to remove legal barriers for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness, the American Bar Association launched the development and implementation of a national Homeless Youth Legal Network aimed at increasing capacity and connectivity. Through this program’s innovative, two-pronged legislative advocacy and legal services initiative, unaccompanied homeless youth—including those transitioning from the child welfare and juvenile justice systems—will benefit from greater legal protection, improved outcomes, and access to justice. In 2017 the ABA Homeless Youth Legal Network selected 12 Model Pilot Programs (including Legal Counsel for Youth and Children) to highlight promising practices across the country, and to help illustrate the value of providing legal services to youth experiencing or at high risk for homelessness.
To learn more about how the juvenile justice and child welfare systems relate to youth homelessness and how you can help, check out Legal Counsel for Youth and Children’s latest report, Empty Promises: Homeless Minors, Our Community’s Failure to Adequately Serve Them, and Hope for a Way Forward.
To learn more about Legal Counsel for Youth and Children’s holistic advocacy services for youth who are or are at risk of homelessness visit them online. You also can explore other model programs providing legal services to homeless youth around the country at the American Bar Association’s Homeless Youth Legal Network’s 2017 Model Programs.