Grantee Spotlight:
TeamChild® In Washington State:
Ensuring At-Risk Youth Have An Opportunity to Succeed

Young people often come to the juvenile justice system with a host of serious issues that contribute to criminal or other problem behavior.  While their involvement in the juvenile justice system may lead some to believe that they are ‘bad kids,’ many of these youth are marginalized because of poverty, disability, abuse and neglect.  Imagine being a teenager drawn into the criminal justice system in large part because of circumstances beyond your control or understanding. For example, Michael suffered from severe developmental disabilities making him easily misled by his peers into getting in trouble with the police. Personal care hours from the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) allowed his family to hire an aid to support and watch out for Michael. They were devastated when he was no longer eligible for DDD services.  Enrique had been provided special education services to help him with his academic and behavior disabilities. When he switched schools, his new district did not provide him with those services.  He began to fail his classes and act out; the school expelled him on allegations of theft.  Ashley was in severe conflict with her adoptive parents. At age 14, she was bouncing between the psychiatric hospital, the Crisis Residential Center, and the youth shelter.  She faced several criminal charges incurred while she was on the streets and was found in contempt of a court order in her At Risk Youth case.  

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Stories like those of Michael, Enrique, and Ashley are common in the juvenile justice system.  Decades of juvenile delinquency research have chronicled the relationships between juvenile delinquency, gang activity, trauma, school engagement, unsafe living situations, mental health needs and drug/alcohol abuse.  For example, researchers estimate that between 50-75% of incarcerated youth have diagnosable mental health disorders.1 Many children have experienced school failure, truancy and discipline.  Some have substance abuse problems.  Others may feel alienated from their families or consistently experience conflict in their home.  These issues are at the root of their behavior and ultimate involvement in the juvenile justice system.2 As a result, while juveniles are punished for their conduct, the fundamental causes of their behavior often go unaddressed.

TeamChild is a nonprofit civil legal aid agency that intervenes at a critical point in a child’s life to address the underlying causes of delinquency.  Although the youths described above were facing different challenges, what they have in common is that they were referred to TeamChild when their situations became dire.  TeamChild was built on the simple premise that many youth can be diverted from delinquency and violence if their basic needs are met.  “We were the brainchild of public defenders and civil legal services attorneys,” says Statewide Training and Advocacy Coordinator Jeannie Nist. “Young people were coming to court over and over again with the same problems. No one was dealing with their underlying needs. Judges were frustrated by seeing the same kids again and again.” 

TeamChild was founded in 1995 in response to that gap, and today it exclusively serves young people who are involved in or at high risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system.  Its mission is to provide free civil legal advocacy and community education to help these youth secure the education, healthcare, housing and other support they need to achieve positive outcomes in their lives. TeamChild clients are generally between the ages of 12-18 and come from low-income households. The program has five offices across Washington and serves about a thousand youths a year. TeamChild receives a mix of funding, including public sources such as the state and county, private foundations and a $340,000 annual grant from the Legal Foundation of Washington, which administrates IOLTA funds in Washington.  Adaptations of TeamChild’s model have been established in legal aid and defender programs in other parts of the country, including Florida, Kentucky, and Connecticut. 

The Unique Role of Civil Legal Advocacy

While many services are legally mandated by federal and state laws (including special education programs and Medicaid funded health care), it is common for court-involved children to encounter barriers in accessing them. These barriers can be associated with inadequate communication between systems, disagreements around what the child needs, and discrimination based on a child’s juvenile record.  Public defenders and other advocates for youth often recognize the barriers their clients face, but do not have the resources to address them.  TeamChild is able to complement public defense and other advocacy by providing holistic legal representation in multiple systems.  Staff Attorney Rosemarie Thurman says of her work, “I think that the role of the TeamChild attorney is to advocate for the youth by looking at all possible options to resolving the issues. Whether that be enforcing their rights, exploring alternatives, seeking services or anything else that the youth feels will help resolve the current problem and make them more successful.”

TeamChild advocates in a number of different ways, depending on the needs of the child.  Staff attorneys work with children who are out of school and in danger of dropping out.  Lawyers help the child understand and exercise his right to return to school, often through readmission meetings and school discipline hearings. TeamChild attorneys help children with disabilities navigate the special education system in order to obtain evaluations and services.  If a child is struggling because she is not receiving adequate support from her community mental health agency, TeamChild will advocate for the quality and level of services that are medically necessary.  Attorneys obtain evaluations that lead to outpatient or inpatient treatment, establish eligibility for health or financial benefits, or challenge a denial of service. If a youth is struggling because of conflict in the home, TeamChild can assist him in securing alternative living arrangements through placement negotiations with family members or through court-authorized placement.   Executive Director Anne Lee summarizes the unique skills civil legal aid attorneys bring to representation of court-involved youth as, “We have the knowledge and tools to hold systems accountable and offer solutions to help them change their way of doing business to ensure that children are getting their critical needs met.”

Partnership with Public Defenders

A critical part of TeamChild’s holistic representation of court-involved youth is its partnership with their juvenile public defenders. Rosemarie says of this partnership, “If we can help a youth locate housing and they avoid long term incarceration, or have their case dismissed, it reduces the public defender’s workload and helps them achieve positive outcomes for youth.” By securing their rights to community supports, TeamChild helps young people stay connected to their families and communities and gives courts viable alternatives to incarceration.  A 2007 survey of public defenders who worked regularly with TeamChild  found that a majority of interviewees believed that program involvement in a case almost always led to better access to and attainment of services, particularly educational services.3 Many also felt that TeamChild involvement impacted charging, and influenced judicial decision-making, leading ultimately to more positive dispositions.4 The positive benefits extend not just to individual cases, but to the whole criminal justice system.  An evaluation comparing TeamChild clients with a comparison group found that a dollar spent on TeamChild services yields $2.23 in criminal justice system savings.5 In less than 6 months, TeamChild program costs are paid back by the criminal justice savings produced by the program.6

The Broader Impact of our Work

In addition to legal representation, TeamChild provides extensive community outreach and legal education. As part of the outreach and education, TeamChild recently developed a training for attorneys to obtain critical information from the education and court systems when representing youth facing adult charges. They recruited and trained a panel of volunteer lawyers to help youth who have been suspended or expelled get back into school. They partnered with the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration to provide training to juvenile justice professionals working with youth transitioning out of long-term incarceration.  In addition, TeamChild coordinated know-your-rights workshops for young women in a juvenile detention center.

Breaking the Cycle

Because of TeamChild’s advocacy, the stories of Michael, Enrique, and Ashley have hopeful endings.  After Michael was denied DDD eligibility despite no change in his condition, his TeamChild attorney successfully challenged the denial. In fact, the state reversed its decision, reinstated Michael’s services, and re-evaluated his needs, which ultimately resulted in additional personal care hours.  TeamChild successfully advocated for Enrique’s expulsion to be lifted and for the school to start providing him with special education services. Enrique is now enrolled and attending school with the supports he needs.  TeamChild helped Ashley secure a safe and stable foster home, which allowed her to get off the streets and engage in services that support reunification with her adoptive family.  All of these teenagers now have a second chance at leaving the justice system behind and successfully transitioning from adolescence to productive and healthy adulthood.


1 Youth with Mental Health Disorders in the Juvenile Justice System: Results from a Multi-State Prevalence Study. Published by National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, June 2006 Research and Program Brief (Jennie L. Shufelt, MS and Joseph J. Cocozza, Ph.D)

2 Decades of juvenile delinquency prevention research have been shaped by J. David Hawkins and Richard Catalano’s framework which established that risk and protective factors across individual, family, peer, school and community domains determine problem behaviors such as substance abuse, violence, delinquency, teen pregnancy and dropping out of school.  Hawkins and Catalano’s framework for reducing risk factors and improving protective factors assumes that children will have access to services that directly address their needs.  Youth are referred to TeamChild, however, because they do not have full access to services and in fact experience significant barriers created by their circumstances and the systems designed to serve them

3 TeamChild 2007 Final Evaluation - Reported to Washington Governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee August 2007 (Deborah Feldman)

4 Ibid.

5 The Federal Byrne Grant Youth Violence Prevention and Intervention Program Cross-Site Evaluation 2003-2004 Executive Summary (Ernst Stromsdorfer /Rainier Research Associates)

6 Ibid.

Kalila Jackson-Spieker graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in International Studies & Human Rights. Volunteer work with the ACLU while in school led to her interest in the civil legal rights of youth, and she has worked as program support staff for TeamChild in its Seattle office since May 2010.

For more information about TeamChild, please visit http://teamchild.org/