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Preventing Legal Deserts in Our Rural Communities

Michelle Paxton


  • Rural communities have a severe lack of access to attorneys, especially those who specialize in child welfare and youth justice.
  • Children in rural areas are more likely to experience maltreatment and become involved in the juvenile court system than children in urban areas.
  • Rural attorneys face unique challenges, such as isolation, lack of support, and vicarious trauma.
  • The University of Nebraska's Children's Justice Attorney Education Fellowship Program is a promising model for addressing the legal inequity of representation in rural communities.
Preventing Legal Deserts in Our Rural Communities
Mathieu Young Inc. via Getty Images

A long, long time ago, in what seems like a galaxy far away, I graduated from law school. Since then, practicing law has dominated my career. With my law degree, like many graduates, I thought I was immediately ready to create change through effective advocacy. I was wrong, not because my legal education was lacking, but because the reality of what was essential for my professional growth was outside the classroom. Knowledge of statutes and case law provides the necessary foundation for advocacy, but that is simply not enough. Advice, support, and mentorship from practicing attorneys and the judiciary are, in fact, what can really shape and prepare a new attorney. In reality, this less formal system has for many generations effectively nurtured the development of early-career attorneys. Unfortunately, there are large swaths of the nation where this reinforcement is difficult or simply impossible. In particular, attorneys entering the workforce in rural areas do not necessarily have access to this support customarily found in urban areas.

Legal Deserts

Rural communities severely lack access to attorneys, a phenomenon known as legal deserts. Data from the American Bar Association for the year 2020 revealed that 1,300 counties in the United States have less than one attorney per 1,000 residents, and many have no attorneys whatsoever. Residents are required to drive for hours to access basic legal services to handle even routine matters. Despite efforts by many states to increase access to justice for rural America, a scarcity of rural attorneys continues. The stakes are exacerbated when rural children and families are involved in the juvenile court system due to the fundamental interests at issue. There is a lack of attorneys available to serve in juvenile court, and those willing may not have access to the necessary formal and informal supports needed to become effective advocates in child welfare and youth justice. Without these supports, attorneys may opt out of juvenile cases, and as a result, outcomes for children and families deteriorate.

Increased Risks for Juvenile Court Involvement in Rural Communities

Unfortunately, the shortage of attorneys in rural communities does not correlate to the likelihood of children and families being involved in juvenile court. On the contrary, children in rural areas are 1.7 times more likely to experience maltreatment than children in urban communities. Among the contributing factors are a lack of prevention services, higher rates of child poverty, and bias. Consistently, the data reveal that children living in rural communities experience poverty at significantly higher rates. In fact, from 2015 to 2019, 127 of the 138 counties with child poverty rates of 40 percent or higher were rural counties. What child welfare practitioners have known for years is now supported by a growing body of research illustrating that poverty during childhood has a direct and indirect impact on child welfare involvement. The challenge is compounded for children of color and their families living in rural communities who experience poverty at higher rates. In addition to poverty, fewer community-based services and bias increase the likelihood of children being involved in both the youth justice and child welfare systems. While stakeholders acknowledge and propose solutions to address racial and ethnic disproportionality stemming from explicit and implicit biases, the unique dynamics of rural communities warrant further examination. For instance, given the size of many rural communities, families lack the sense of privacy afforded to their urban counterparts, especially when the family has experienced generational involvement. For that reason, preconceived beliefs about a family are more likely to inform decisions surrounding court involvement and determine case outcomes if systems are not created to acknowledge these biases. When these biases have a negative impact on decisions, they increase the likelihood that children and families will not have trust and confidence in a system, reducing procedural justice.

Unique Challenges in Rural Advocacy

The challenges are further amplified given the time requirements under the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Many rural communities lack programs and certifications to ensure attorneys have the knowledge and skills necessary to serve vulnerable populations, and some may not even have enough local attorneys at all, requiring the appointment of attorneys several hours away, which adds to travel demands. The lack of attorneys available and the unique skill set required to provide high-quality advocacy create a plethora of disadvantages for children and families living in rural communities. Rural attorneys, especially those practicing in child welfare and youth justice, are especially isolated. They often must spend hours traveling to hearings, home visits, and client meetings. Further compounding the isolation is the lack of peers to serve as sources of support or mentors because, all too often, other attorneys practicing in this area are opposing counsel. Many attorneys working in juvenile court are affected by vicarious trauma similar to what is experienced by mental health professionals. Those working in rural communities suffer additional disadvantages. First, historically, attorneys are not trained in how to identify and manage their trauma; and, second, the effective modalities to assist are often in relationship to others, which may not be practical due to geographic distance.

Effective advocacy requires specialized education and training that are often inaccessible or impractical for attorneys working in rural areas. Traditionally, educational opportunities are more accessible to practitioners in urban areas and often do not address the challenges specific to rural communities. Additional challenges for rural attorneys stem from a lack of resources available to their clients (parent or child) to address circumstances that led to court involvement. Even if an attorney is familiar with best practices on addressing domestic violence in the family, treating substance use disorders, or supporting a parent with mental illness, communities may not have service providers within reasonable proximity to serve the family. If the service is available, waitlists may prevent timely access or parents may be forced to travel significant distances to participate in required services, which can impede, and possibly eliminate, meaningful contact with their children. These barriers deepen the quality divide between urban and rural representation.


Nebraska, like many states, struggles to recruit and retain attorneys to serve in rural communities, especially for cases in juvenile court. Understanding the unique challenges, the University of Nebraska launched the Children’s Justice Attorney Education Fellowship Program (CJAE) in 2021 to address the legal inequity of representation across the state. Traditional legal education that involves only a few hours or days has not met the need or created the desired impact across our communities. To create meaningful change, over eight months fellows participate in four in-person workshops providing extensive education in federal and state child welfare laws, along with invaluable information and insight into the subjects necessary to become strong advocates, such as trauma and child development, substance use, domestic violence, complex family dynamics, and specialized Indian Child Welfare Act training, given that many of our Indigenous communities are located primarily in rural areas. Fellows also participate in monthly case consultation with a team of experts to address complex legal questions in their cases while integrating social and psychological factors to increase their child advocacy skills for underrepresented communities. Finally, fellows participate in biweekly reflective practice to examine personal biases, thoughts, and feelings about their cases and use this expanded awareness to make better decisions. This type of reflective experience has been empirically shown to promote ethical practice and decrease vicarious traumatization.

In two years, the program has trained attorneys in 58 percent of Nebraska counties, most of which have fewer than 50 attorneys. Current and past fellows share that not only their advocacy skills improved but their commitment to working in juvenile court increased significantly. Evaluation results revealed that over the course of the CJAE, fellows spent approximately 10 more hours per weekon their juvenile caseload and wanted to spend even more hours on juvenile matters. In addition, fellows reported the CJAE experience resulted in improved coping skills and increased connection to other juvenile law professionals that ultimately have helped them better manage the stress of their work. These findings suggest that the program increased their interest, motivation, and capacity to work in juvenile courts. Given the shortage of attorneys available to practice in rural Nebraska, this shift in interest and availability will directly impact the children and families served by each fellow.

A recent fellow shared, “I’m from a very rural community, became an attorney to help people, but did not have access to formal mentorship. I can’t imagine practicing in this field without this program.” The fellows also discovered what I did not know when graduating from law school: that education and support from colleagues deepens understanding and commitment. The challenges experienced in Nebraska are universal to many rural communities. To effectively address the rural legal deserts, similar programs must be implemented to meet the unique needs of the legal workforce and the children and families involved in juvenile court. Today’s early-career and future lawyers can feel their impact stretch far, far into the future if we succeed.