America's youth are our most important asset - our future is in their hands. However, many young people and their families face serious problems that greatly elevate their "risk." Among these are severe abuse, chronic neglect, domestic and dating violence, poor and violent neighborhoods, unmet mental and physical health needs, emotional or behavioral problems, gangs, poor peer group choices and relationships and poor educational options.
ABA President Karen Mathis made it a priority of her term of office to find ways that the law and the legal community can better identify and support America's at-risk young people. To lead this initiative, she established the ABA Commission on Youth at Risk to undertake a year-long effort to identify the challenges facing this population (particularly those in the 13 through 19 age range) that greatly elevate their "risk," and working to enhance laws, judicial intervention strategies, policies, practices, and programs intended to help prevent teens from becoming delinquent or engaging in criminal acts.
The Commission's work is guided by the recommendations from the Youth at Risk Planning Conference held in February 2006 at the Center for Children, Families and the Law at the Hofstra University School of Law. There, an interdisciplinary group of 60 professionals and youth recommended that the ABA focus on these six areas:
- Finding better ways to serve juvenile "status offenders," such as school truants, runaways, and youth in conflict with their parents, and addressing the disproportionate custodial detention of girls who fall into these categories;
- Meeting the needs of those youth who, when they turn 18 or 19, are "aged out" of foster care or juvenile justice systems and may become ineligible for needed services;
- Assuring more meaningful participation by youth in the court proceedings affecting them;
- Enhancing access by teens and their families to "evidence-based" services within their community, focused on preventing involvement with juvenile and criminal justice systems and aiding teens with emotional, behavioral, or other mental health issues;
- Better supporting teens living in chaotic and violent homes, and youth who are going through high-conflict family breakup; and
- Improving how different legal and court interventions affect youth "crossing over" from one category of systemic label (e.g., abused and neglected child) to another label (e.g., delinquent child or status offender).
How can volunteer efforts of the organized bar, law reforms, changes in juvenile and family court jurisdiction and practice, improved educational opportunities, and enhanced legal advocacy better aid these youth? As lawyers, we can use our unique skills and vantage point to play a new role in helping our nation's most at-risk youth. The American Bar Association can help "connect the dots," by facilitating the collective work of youth advocates, youth-serving organizations, and youth themselves, along with lawyers as their "partners" in reform. We can work with policymakers to help change the law. We can work with courts, to help youngsters before their lives slip hopelessly off course. We can better include and listen to the voices of youth who are going through, or have gone through, the judicial process. The ABA can assist in "adding capacity," directly supporting programs and the lawyers that already are making a difference. We can showcase youth programs that, based on independent, rigorous evaluations, we know work, and we can encourage our members to support these activities and replicate them in their own communities.
The Commission on Youth at Risk will work with others concerned about the problems of youth to enhance evidence-based prevention, intervention and treatment programs for youth and their families. Working in collaboration with government agencies and education, medical, law enforcement, foster care and youth service organizations, the Commission will endeavor to improve state and federal laws that address troubled youth, to enhance judicial practices and structures that will promote true "Family Courts" based on broad-based therapeutic justice models, and to expand quality lawyering that addresses youth at high risk of entering juvenile and criminal systems. The Commission will also endeavor to view the "systems" that troubled youth experience through their own eyes, drawing from their experiences and recommendations for change.
The Commission is staffed by the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC.