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Addressing Basic Needs to Reduce Court Involvement—Poverty Is the Elephant in the Room

Anne J Bader-Martin


  • A juvenile-court-appointed attorney shares a poignant story of a pregnant 15-year-old client in foster care facing challenges due to poverty and lack of resources.
  • The attorney reflects on the systemic issue of poverty in the juvenile court system, emphasizing its impact on vulnerable children and families and the racial justice implications.
  • The article introduces "One Can Help," a nonprofit created by juvenile court attorneys and social workers in Massachusetts to address resource gaps for underserved families involved with the court system.
  • One Can Help provides targeted assistance, such as funds for ID cards, parenting classes, urgent car repairs, and technology tools, aiming to prevent family separation, enhance court outcomes, and ultimately save the state money. 
Addressing Basic Needs to Reduce Court Involvement—Poverty Is the Elephant in the Room
Catherine Falls Commercial via Getty Images

One day, a juvenile-court-appointed attorney sat in a Dunkin’ Donuts across from her pregnant 15-year-old client who lived in foster care, with her already overburdened elderly grandmother because her mom had died of an overdose a few years before and her father wasn’t in her life. She was a friendly girl with sad eyes but a very warm laugh. In looking ahead to the birth of her baby, she was really looking forward to having someone of her own to love—and to be loved back unconditionally.

As they sat in the crowded café, the attorney tried to discuss all the responsibilities that caring for a baby entailed, but the teen preferred to talk about a stroller she had seen in a magazine that she really wanted. She even brought along the picture of it to show the attorney so there would be no mistake.

The attorney tried to explain why this stroller was not their first priority and tried to steer the conversation back to the critical needs list, but the teen found ways to keep asking about that stroller.

Suddenly, the attorney felt a tap on her shoulder. There was an outstretched hand holding a check in front of her and she heard a man’s deep voice say, “Buy her the stroller.”

The blank check was made out for $175.00. The teen and the attorney started to cry.

That attorney was me.

In that moment, I realized that people would want to help if they could see the heartbreakingly vulnerable children and families I worked with, the ones who were trying so hard to remedy court concerns or improve very difficult life circumstances but who were thwarted from doing so because they lacked some relatively small amount of funds necessary to either take that next positive step forward or to stop some little problem before it turned into a complete disaster.

But as we know, the public rarely gets the opportunity to actually see these children and families or hear about the deprivation, hardships, and poverty they have experienced, because juvenile court proceedings are confidential in most states and hearings are conducted behind closed doors. That is at least until a real tragedy hits the news. Then, of course, we are all saddened to learn the depressing family histories and wonder what could have been done sooner to help this child or family.

To anyone who works with juvenile-court-involved children or families, this is no surprise as poverty is the big elephant in the room in the juvenile court system. It often is the cause of entry into the system and can prevent progress and reunification.

Racial Justice, Poverty, and the Law Are Intertwined

While full statistics are hard to come by, the vast majority of children and families in the juvenile court and child welfare systems of Massachusetts are considered to be indigent. Also, children of color are depressingly overrepresented in these systems, and generational poverty and trauma are commonplace. As we are starting to realize, it is likely that many of our families have also been the victims of institutional racism (benefits denial, predatory lending, housing discrimination, mass incarceration, employment barriers, and earning disparities), which has contributed to their poverty and current circumstances. Embarrassingly, many of us are only beginning to understand why poverty and current circumstances must be viewed through a holistic and a racial justice lens. We can’t ignore the past. “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.” Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (2019).

While this article focuses on Massachusetts, the overarching emphasis is on how to address poverty and better support vulnerable children and families in the chronically underfunded juvenile court and child welfare systems, which is a systemic issue that should be part of a national conversation.

It is difficult to work in a system in which our most vulnerable lack the critical resources necessary to address court concerns, improve difficult lives, or build better futures. Not being able to take positive steps forward not only results in unsatisfactory and inequitable outcomes—more foster care, more family breakups, more court intervention, and more criminal consequences—it also makes it almost impossible for us, the attorneys and social workers, to be effective advocates. 

So many times, it is obvious to the attorneys and social workers working with this underserved population in crisis that if some fairly basic resource was available, it could change everything. For example:

  • $30.00 for an ID card so a youth aging out of foster care can get a job.
  • $250 for required parenting classes to learn better skills.
  • $500 for urgent car repairs so that a family, just reunified, will not miss school or medical appointments or employment.

Oftentimes, many court-appointed attorneys find themselves just reaching into their own not very well lined pockets, not just because they know what a profound difference some little bit of assistance will make at a very critical moment in time, but because they can’t stand to see the whole house of cards fall apart because a small bill can’t be paid. Even missed court dates or missed meetings with a probation officer because of a lack of funds to get there can cause a free fall. A free fall can mean the difference between a child being able to be reunified with family or needing to stay in foster care or even the parents having parental rights terminated.

Good legal skills are not always enough without resources. But lawyers cannot pay out of pocket for every client’s needs. There are too many clients. And besides, there are boundary issues.

So how can we help our underserved clients who do not have the critical resources they need to address court concerns so that they can either remain together or reunify sooner? What happens when our clients have the motivation to make the necessary changes but lack the means to accomplish them?

Court-appointed attorneys have difficult jobs for many reasons; too many cases and not enough time are a few of the biggest issues, but a myriad of social problems mired by poverty often lies close to the surface and may turn out to be the hardest challenge.

As the nation grapples with how racial discrimination and income inequality undermine access to justice, I wanted to tell you about an unusual nonprofit we created to address this issue in Massachusetts.

One Can Help

One Can Help (OCH) was created by juvenile court attorneys and social workers because we know that a major opportunity to meaningfully improve and enhance vulnerable lives is missed when there is state intervention but no resources to address concerns. This is the ideal time to intervene! Children and families are in crisis. People are motivated. Stakes are high. Judicial oversight and professional services are in place. Often the only things missing are the financial resources needed to make constructive gains. 

One Can Help is able to provide for individualized needs, without giving money directly to this population, through an innovative system of collaboration with their court-appointed attorneys and social workers. Only professionals can apply and they act as a trusted partner-conduit to responsibly help provide the missing resources once approved. No money ever goes to the beneficiaries themselves. Often, through this process, OCH can provide much-needed assistance in just one or two days throughout Massachusetts.  

OCH has already helped more than 6,000 children and families since 2006. 

In normal times (i.e., not during the pandemic), One Can Help usually was asked to pay for items such as the following:

  • beds or basic needs to support kids that can sometimes even help avoid the need for foster care and the traumatic separation of children from their families
  • laptops, so students can keep up with classmates, apply to college, or look for jobs
  • bus passes, so aging-out teens or parents can get to job skills training
  • transportation passes or car repair to facilitate visits, counseling, etc.
  • emergency rent to ensure that a family does not become destabilized during a temporary setback
  • after-school activities that, in a delinquency case, can spare a child further court intervention

These items are critical so that children and parents can meet the requirements of a service plan. Last year, a child who had been in foster care for four years and was on the termination of parental rights track, was able to go back to his biological parents because One Can Help paid for a ride service for the parents, who lived too far away from public transportation. With this resource, the parents were able to travel across the state repeatedly and arrive for visits on time, which allowed them to demonstrate the strong bond they still had with their child, the skills they had learned in parenting classes, and their ongoing hard-won commitment to sobriety. The state was no longer able to reach an extrapolated conclusion that because the parents had previously been tardy to visits, this alone meant that they would not be able to reliably get their child to doctor appointments or school if he returned home.

But the pandemic has brought other basic needs to the forefront. The pandemic is hitting our already depleted children and families hard. Poor families are really struggling, and the problems they face keep compounding. Many do not have savings and instead live paycheck to paycheck, or they can’t work and are trying to care for, entertain, educate, and keep safe children in small spaces without sufficient food, basic supplies, and educational tools. As a result, requests for assistance from concerned attorneys and social workers, who are learning about the difficulties their clients are facing, have tripled.

In mid-March, as the world closed down, we immediately saw a great uptick in requests for e- cards for food and clothing and indoor activities, both to address dire needs and to lower stress.

There soon followed a tremendous need for technology tools. We immediately saw a large upswing in requests for laptops and Chromebooks. Suddenly every child in the family needed one because all students in the family had to be online at the same time. Some schools provided them quickly. But many others could not—especially in the poorer districts. We did not feel we could wait to see if these kids would eventually receive a laptop, so we immediately started to purchase them so that our families in crisis would not become even more disenfranchised and fall even farther behind. Since the pandemic began, OCH has provided more than 300 laptops for educational purposes.

By autumn, most schools were able to help their students who were in middle school or high school, with some notable exceptions. Elementary school kids were usually considered to be less of a priority, and some families live in school districts that still have not provided Chromebooks for their kids. These poor children are still having to do paper packets of homework, sent through the mail, by themselves, while knowing that their classmates are Zooming together without them. How can kids have good self-esteem in those circumstances?

And that is just the tip of the technological iceberg. The lack of technology has also affected children in foster care and treatment programs who suddenly were unable to see the families they missed because in-person visits were stopped and their families could not afford devices for virtual visits.

OCH has now provided hundreds of tablets to parents who don’t have working cameras on their phones or who have no resources to buy tablets or other connectivity tools, because being able to stay connected has obvious benefits for children and families desperate to see each other during this pandemic. But it is also a critical justice issue. When families don’t visit their kids in foster care during this pandemic, even when it is due to a lack of technology, it can be interpreted as evidence of negligence or disinterest, when the reality is that it is instead due to poverty and lack of resources. The lack of connection is also very traumatic for the entire family.

By providing these devices, we also make it possible for social workers to observe family bonds. Having technology accessibility in the home has even allowed some children to return home sooner, and it can even mean avoiding congregate care—and the increased risk of COVID-19 that it can bring—because giving social workers an ability to monitor a family closely means children can be placed at home rather than into congregate care.

These days, many courts are looking more closely to see if “reasonable efforts” have been made by state agencies to try to prevent removal and keep kids home. But unless resources can be found quickly to safely keep kids in their homes or communities (e.g., paying to keep utilities on for a family or the cost of beds so kids can move in with caring relatives), foster care can become the only option. Therefore, ensuring that critical resources are made available to those most harmed by poverty should be an essential part of assessing reasonable efforts.

In addition to the trauma of family separation, the clock starts ticking toward termination trials as soon as the child goes into foster care under the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, regardless of whether resources were available or not.

Also, in delinquency or status offense cases, relatively minor matters can often be resolved effectively and satisfactorily if funds can quickly be found for an activity that will help the teen be more productive or to help the teen attend a needed resource such as an anger management course or substance abuse treatment. When resources are provided more quickly, the wheels of justice turn more fairly.

Massachusetts Juvenile Court Justice Margaret Fearey once noted that when working with underserved families, it can be difficult for a judge to decipher whether noncompliance is because of “a lack of means or a lack of motivation.” With OCH being able to quickly address issues related to a lack of means, that question becomes much easier to answer.

Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, asserts that poverty is an equity issue and not merely a social welfare need. “The opposite of poverty is justice.” As lawyers, we have to understand that justice is not just about a fair hearing in court; it is about having the means to address court concerns. Meaningful access to justice requires meaningful access to resources.

Attorneys, social workers, and the beneficiaries themselves often write to describe the impact of receiving resources that are critically needed. For example:

One Can Help is the only funding source that actually efficiently addresses what we need as juvenile lawyers for our clients. There is not endless amounts of hoops to jump through to get what they need. My client with three children desperately needed a washer and dryer to keep her newly reunified children’s clothes clean—One Can Help came through and this just boosted my client’s self-confidence immensely. Another one of my clients needed technology for learning games and to do virtual meetings with her preschool—One Can Help provided a Kindle Fire for her to do so. Sometimes our clients are one step from the brink of a relapse, a breakdown, etc., over the potential of having an endless mountain of dirty clothes, no money for rent, no food, etc., and One Can Help pulls them back from the brink. No other nonprofit provides any assistance like this! Long term this saves the commonwealth money because the court doesn’t have to stay involved in a family that truly just needs a little extra help and financial support for something like getting an MBTA card! One Can Help just makes SO MUCH SENSE and fills so many gaps our clients need to reach their potential.”

—Laura Joyce, Esq.

Thank you for the train passes. This made it possible for me to visit my daughter in a psychiatric facility and do family counseling together, and now she is coming back home! This could not have happened without the train passes!

—A mother

OCH is fortunate to have hard data in addition to professionals’ anecdotes and thank-you notes from beneficiaries. OCH outcome studies confirm that providing this targeted assistance improves lives, keeps more families together, reduces the need for foster care, prevents homelessness, and helps our juvenile court and child welfare systems be more supportive, effective, and equitable for all. In addition, an independent qualitative evaluation was conducted in 2020 addressing the role One Can Help plays in the juvenile court and child welfare system: Jess Littman, One Can Help and the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems: Findings from a Qualitative Study (Aug. 26, 2020).

Furthermore, there are state savings when assistance is provided quickly! In 2019, a Boston University student-led faculty-advised group concluded that not only does OCH’s innovative approach reduce the need for foster care, strengthen families, prevent homelessness, and support vulnerable children, it also helped save the state between 9 and 11 million dollars in 2017 alone. Boston University 180 Degrees Consulting, One Can Help and Positive Financial Externalities for the State (Mar. 27, 2019).

As attorneys, we know the importance of zealous advocacy. We work hard to protect our clients’ legal rights and ensure quality representation and justice, both inside and outside of court. But sometimes our legal skills are not enough. The truth is that meaningful access to justice requires meaningful access to resources. Poverty can prevent satisfactory court outcomes, but by providing this assistance exactly when it is most needed, we can enhance justice and support more equitable court outcomes for all. That is why we operationalized a way to provide this much-needed assistance.

We believe that there is a need for resources everywhere and are considering expanding to states beyond Massachusetts. We would welcome your suggestions. Is this something your state or community needs? If so, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].