Hope for the Future
The ABA Commission on Youth at Risk

By Alisa Santucci

Most of us remember the milestone of our 18th birthday as a time when our departure toward independence commences with high school graduation and when an array of long–awaited legal choices first become available, such as voting, opening a personal credit card account, joining the military, or even getting a tattoo without anyone else’s consent. Some of us had the benefit during this transition of living at home with one or both parents and learning at least some of the necessary skills of adulthood with the promise of education and employment within reach.

Yet, in 2005 alone, more than 24,000 of our nation’s young people had spent their five previous birthdays in foster care, with an entirely different set of future possibilities chosen for them when they age out of this system. Their outlook is discouraging. According to “Time for Reform: Aging Out and On Their Own,” a 2007 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, one in four will end up in jail within the first two years after they leave the system, one-fifth will become homeless after turning 18, and just over half will have a high school degree. It is a familiar set of poor outcomes that have tragically become a societal norm. For far too many of these and other youths, the departure toward independence has been accompanied by drug abuse, criminal activity, and victimization by sexual assault or physical violence—outcomes that can be deadly. The most recent annual data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, September 7, 2007) shows, after a decade of decline, an alarming spike in the teen suicide rate in 2003 and 2004—up 76 percent in girls aged ten to 14, up 32 percent in girls aged 15 to 19, and up 9 percent in boys aged 15 to 19, the largest single-year rise in 15 years. Our teens are in crisis, and their future deserves our attention and action.

For too many years, alarming statistics have been reported by every existing youth-serving public and private organization, repeating a call to action that grows louder but is greeted too often with silence. We grow weary of hearing these statistics, but we need to be reminded of them because they define an important new mission for the legal profession. We need initiatives that define our hope. No young life should be at risk for such tragic outcomes when a positive promise for the future is within reach.

In 2006 an American Bar Association Presidential Initiative led by Karen J. Mathis established the Commission on Youth at Risk. A longtime advocate for our nation’s youth, Mathis prioritized and promoted the idea that the legal profession can do more, is willing to do more, and has a responsibility to do more. A host of challenges for the country’s most vulnerable young people—ranging from unmet mental health treatment needs, substance abuse, family dysfunction, and many others—are often coupled with a familiar narrative of past abuse, neglect, and despair.

Yet, there is an opportunity to help re–chart the future of a youth’s life toward hope and resiliency. And, to the possible surprise of many readers, this moment can and does often occur within the legal system. Lawyers are uniquely positioned to bring their skills, advocacy, education, and dedication to youths involved in the legal system. The Commission on Youth at Risk is dedicated to bringing the law, the legal community, and accomplished children’s law advocates together to make assistance to youths more accessible and achievable. Since its inception, the Commission has been working to enhance laws, judicial intervention strategies, policies, practices, and programs that can help prevent teens from becoming delinquent and engaging in criminal acts.

Hearing and Listening

At the February 2008 ABA Midyear Meeting in Los Angeles, California, a youth–focused roundtable was held in which several former foster youths described their experiences with court–appointed lawyers. Roundtable discussions such as this one have been sponsored by the Commission on Youth at Risk (and hosted by law firms or bar organizations) throughout the country. These informal forums are designed to connect the dots by bringing together youths, lawyers, judges, youth advocates, organizations, and other partners in reform to raise awareness regarding programs and policies affecting at–risk youths. Topics have ranged from the challenges to young people in military families to juvenile status offenders and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) youths.

The recent Los Angeles roundtable was devoted to youths aging out of foster care and their unmet legal needs. At this and other roundtables, participants have expressed a familiar youth theme, “I don’t feel listened to,” or “my lawyer only talked to me on the day of the hearing,” or worse, “no one asked me what I wanted.” Our expectation of transitioning youths is that they will take charge of their world, become responsible adults, and succeed in society. However, have we done our best to listen to their needs, their wants, and the challenges they face? Youth attorneys have a much broader responsibility than simply showing up for court on the day of the hearing; it begins with listening, becoming a mentor, and guiding the young people in negotiating a complicated system so that it functions in their best interests.

It is no coincidence that the first substantive legal area the Commission tackled was “Better Hearing the Voices of Youth in Court.” Young people must play a meaningful role in their judicial proceedings, and lawyers need to examine how the meaningful involvement of teenagers in all hearings affecting them can be promoted so that court proceedings become a positive participatory experience for vulnerable youths. One successful attorney–youth experience described at the Los Angeles roundtable came from a young woman who described her lawyer as “one of the most positive, influential adults” in her world. This lawyer was the one person who not only cared about what happened to her, but also had the power of legal advocacy to help fight for her in every corner. This lawyer role–modeled what the Commission hopes to inspire and replicate throughout the legal community. As more children grow up in foster care and age out of the system, their need for support and services becomes even more critical to their long–term success.

Crossing Over

One of the most significant shifts occurring in foster care today is the high rate of teenagers moving from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. We call them “crossover” youths who, often for very minor acts, are detained and labeled as “delinquent offenders.” The issue of crossover youths has taken on national significance as early research confirms that they are more likely to be detained and have a higher recidivism rate than youths without a dependency history. They also have poor outcomes because, once labeled delinquent, they are far less likely to receive needed services and support. In February 2008 the ABA approved several recommendations strongly advocated by the Commission on Youth at Risk for this specific population. Instead of shifting these youths to the juvenile justice system, it makes better sense to provide diversion and crisis services with the backdrop of the foster care system continuing in place. For more serious acts, the use of “dual jurisdiction” is encouraged; lawyers should argue to keep the youth’s dependency case open, again so that the child welfare system’s supports remain intact while any juvenile prosecution is pursued.

Juvenile Status Offenders

In 2007 the Commission on Youth at Risk devoted considerable time to another legal population of young people at high risk of juvenile delinquency and criminal court involvement. These are “juvenile status offenders,” youths who are chronically truant from school, beyond the control of their parents, or persistent runaways. ABA–approved policy now calls for the mandating of community–based, evidence–based programs that provide juvenile, family–focused, and strength–based early intervention without any necessity of the youth’s court involvement. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2006 Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Statistical Briefing Book, more than 400,000 youths were arrested or held in limited custody by police in 2004 because of a status offense. These are pre–delinquent youths, standing on a dangerous precipice, who need our legal attention.

This group of youths also includes chronically truant youths, teenagers who are most likely to drop out and not get a high school diploma. According to an October 2007 report by the National High School Center, 1.3 million students failed to graduate from high school in 2004, costing more than $325 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity, and the more than 12 million students who will drop out over the next decade will cost our nation about $3 trillion. Lawyers can respond to this crisis. The Truancy Intervention Project, a successful program created by a bar leader in Atlanta, Georgia, will soon represent its 4,000th child; the program’s success rate through the past two school years exceeded 90 percent. According to program cofounder W. Terence Walsh, the Truancy Intervention Project has saved Fulton County, Georgia, more than $4.1 million in court–appointed lawyer fees alone, with savings in juvenile crime and teen pregnancy prevention, as well as other adverse outcomes averted, that dwarf that amount.

Transitioning to Adulthood

Another significant step the legal community can take to help young people transitioning from foster care is to work to enact laws providing them full access to independent and transitional living services and health care up to at least age 21. They must have access to the court, and to legal and social services through the court, with the help of competent counsel who can advocate for their necessary services and safeguards. The Commission on Youth at Risk believes that ensuring support services for foster youths through age 21 can make strong inroads in reducing the incidence of thrown–away, runaway, and homeless youths who have aged out of foster care.

Lawyers As Community Leaders

The Commission on Youth at Risk believes that lawyers can and should take a leadership role in making a difference in the lives of vulnerable youths. The need for competent legal representation and counseling have never been more important. In partnership with Casey Family Programs and the Eckerd Family Foundation, the Commission in February 2008 launched the Bar–Youth Empowerment Project to Aid Youth In and Exiting Foster Care. The mission is to improve outcomes for youths who have “aged out” or are about to age out of foster care by promoting youth participation in court cases and offering access to legal counseling and representation to youths in need of specialized legal assistance.

Unique to this project mission is the recruitment of pro bono lawyers and law students who will team with youths to provide support on issues such as housing, education, public benefits, domestic relations issues, and immigration. They will provide substantive training to youths on a variety of topics, provide direct representation of youths in selected cases, and work with youths on state law reforms. Although the project is in its early stages, the response from lawyers across the country has been noteworthy.

Getting Involved

Our nation’s vulnerable youth will continue to face serious, life–changing circumstances that put them at risk for entering the juvenile justice and criminal systems. How can volunteer efforts of the organized bar, law reform, changes in juvenile and family court jurisdiction and practice, improved high school–based educational opportunities, and enhanced legal advocacy better aid these young people? As lawyers, we can use our unique skills and vantage point to play a new role in helping them. We can work with policy makers to help change laws affecting them. We can work with courts, and with transitioning foster youths, to help youngsters before their lives slip hopelessly off course. We can better include and listen to the voices of young people who are going through, or have gone through, the judicial process.

The ABA can assist by “adding capacity,” directly supporting local programs and the lawyers that seek to make a difference. We can showcase youth programs that clearly work, as shown by independent, rigorous evaluations, and we can encourage our fellow lawyers to support these activities and replicate them in their own communities. The milestone of any youth’s 18th birthday should be celebrated with energy, hope, and a commitment to a successful future. It is our role to help ensure that these positive outcomes can be achieved for our most vulnerable young people through competent legal counseling, effective legal reforms, and close attention to the voices of our youth.

For more information on the Commission on Youth at Risk, please visit its website at www.abanet.org/youthatrisk.

Alisa Santucci holds a master’s degree in family therapy and has more than 20 years of experience in promoting advocacy and policy for children and youth. She is Assistant to the Director of the ABA Commission on Youth at Risk and may be reached at santucca@staff.abanet.org.

Copyright 2008

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