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Addressing Basic Needs to Reduce Court Involvement and Advance Racial Justice

Anne J Bader-Martin

Addressing Basic Needs to Reduce Court Involvement and Advance Racial Justice
ljubaphoto via iStock

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Juvenile court proceedings are confidential. Unless you work in the system or a serious tragedy reaches the news, you will not see the significant role poverty frequently plays. In juvenile court proceedings, the vast majority of the children and families are indigent, and many have trauma histories or additional disabilities. Often, families of color are disproportionately involved.

Poverty Barriers Prevent Progress

While a mother receives treatment for postnatal depression, her toddler goes into foster care. She improves considerably, but she is often late to weekly visits and has missed some appointments. The social worker wonders if this mother is a responsible parent, stalling the reunification plans. The mother explains that she can’t afford the two trains and a bus required to visit her child several towns away. No funding exists to pay for transportation, so the child stays in foster care, and the termination of parental rights trial remains on track.

Lack of resources results in unsatisfactory, inequitable, and traumatic outcomes: more foster care, more family breakups, more court intervention, and more criminal consequences. As many of these low-income families are families of color, racial justice and equity principles are profoundly evident.

It is almost impossible for professionals to advocate for a client zealously and effectively when poverty barriers prevent progress. The attorneys and social workers working with this population know that better outcomes follow when vital resources are available. For example:

  • $30 for an ID card so a teen aging out of foster care can get a job;
  • $250 for a father to attend a court-required parenting course;
  • $500 for car repairs so a family does not fall apart because mom cannot get the kids to school or medical appointments.

Many court-appointed attorneys find themselves reaching into their own pockets because they cannot stand to see families fail because of poverty. This is not a tenable approach.

Providing the Missing Resources

How can we better advance equity and racial justice when our clients have the motivation to take positive steps forward but lack the means to do so?

One Can Help (OCH) is an innovative nonprofit based in Massachusetts whose mission is solely to provide the missing resources at-risk youth, foster children, and underserved families urgently need to remedy court concerns and improve complicated lives. Court-appointed attorneys and social workers created OCH, believing that state involvement represents the ideal time to ensure all necessary resources are available.

Rather than giving money directly, OCH works through collaboration with juvenile court-appointed attorneys, social workers, and child advocates. Often, the nonprofit provides this individualized assistance in a day. This support has never been more needed than now. The pandemic has exposed how those with the least are affected the most. Many of our families have struggled to feed, care for, and educate kids who are home all day in suboptimal conditions, compounding previous problems.

As we grapple with the many ways structural racism and income inequality undermine access to justice, OCH is working on the ground to address these issues, one child at a time and one need at a time. While OCH typically pays for camps, activities, and supports that facilitate reunification efforts or probation compliance, requests for basic needs have tripled this past year for items like:

  • E-cards for food to help families survive and reduce stress;
  • Laptops to support online learning, virtual visitation for families separated by foster care, or to attend court hearings or counseling;
  • Emergency funds to prevent evictions, repair cars, etc.

There is a need for resources everywhere. OCH is considering expanding beyond Massachusetts, and we welcome your suggestions. Is this something your state or community needs? Would you like to donate or get involved in the program? To learn more, please visit