Young people involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice system—including homeless youth—frequently travel through myriad public systems. Many of them have experienced high levels of trauma, violence, instability and loss, so the journey is rarely straightforward or pleasant.
“Walk a Mile in Their Shoes: The Children’s Counsel Experiential Learning Module,” a program meant to increase understanding and awareness of this journey, was held on Friday at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago.
The program was sponsored by ABA President Hilarie Bass’ Legal Needs of Homeless Youth Initiative, which includes a national pro bono effort matching lawyers, law firms and in-house counsel with homeless youth shelters and drop-in centers as well as an international summit focusing on implementation strategies of the recently released UN General Comment on Children in Street Situations. Both efforts aim to engage and equip the legal community to advocate for homeless youth and improve outcomes for this vulnerable population.
Facilitated by Angela Vigil of Baker McKenzie in Miami and Brian Blalock, director of law and policy at Tipping Point Community in San Francisco, the participants—a diverse group of that included a Los Angeles legal aid lawyer, an ABA member’s teenage daughter and association staff, among them—adopted homeless youth identities.
One was that of a 14-year-old who wants to be a chef. His Jamaican grandmothers taught him to cook before they died a few years ago, and cooking and working are his only priorities. School was never a good fit for him, and as a result, he reads on a 1st grade level and finds getting through school nearly impossible.
When he lived with his father and uncles, he was beaten regularly until the school noticed the bruises and alerted authorities and he was placed in emergency foster care. He has trouble sleeping at night and often misses morning obligations, including school and appointments.
He knows he’s not “crazy,” but he needs therapy and actually enjoys it when the therapist is “cool.”
The simulation participants read about their characters and consulted their “transitional independent living plan.”
The 14-year-old boy’s task is to
- attend school and receive three academic credits,
- go to therapy and receive credit for attendance,
- get a job, and
- get enrolled in health insurance.
The list is daunting, and accomplishing even one of the tasks seems impossible.
Virgil and Blalock led ABA staffers who role-played the kind of professionals encountered by homeless youth.
Each meeting with an adult is confusing, contradictory, sometimes dismissive and rarely simple and satisfying. A teacher might demand an assignment be completed for credit but doesn’t explain it; a social worker might rush through an interview because she has so many clients to see; and a therapist might seem to just give you a signoff without providing any guidance.
If the youth is unlucky enough to be sent to juvenile hall, he might meet other young people hung up in the system who can offer friendship and advice, but he will also likely face another array of mystifying rules, regulations and unhelpful adults.
While all this was going on, some of the participants were told to wait in the hall, where they were given no information and became disconnected and angry.
The simulation was followed by a session in which the participants reflected on what they went through, such as realizing:
- how quickly the good intentions of service providers can disappear when they are overworked;
- how quickly the “youths” felt frustrated, angry, dumb and powerless;
- how important it was to coordinate efforts to provide services effectively;
- the importance of acknowledging the youth and making a connection; and
- the importance of cultural sensitivity
The participants recommended that future simulations include some positive interactions with service providers.
Vigil and Blalock have held the simulation for Google, Baker & McKenzie and Salesforce (which included legal aid lawyers and public defenders), among other groups, and they use personas adopted from real homeless youth clients.
The feedback they’ve received is that the exercise makes participants more empathetic; more aware of the complexity of the journey of homeless youth