The Missing Link: Free Civil Legal Advocacy for Homeless Youth

In my last post for The Chronicle‘s Blogger Co-Op, I described the problem of youth homelessness in Alameda County, and introduced the Alameda County “AB 12 Homeless Youth Demonstration Project,” which is developing a new model of collaboration among public and nonprofit agencies serving older homeless adolescents.

The project began as an enhancement to services for youth who show up at DreamCatcher Youth Shelter in downtown Oakland after days or weeks of surviving chaotic living situations. Project partners provide emergency shelter, and through free civil legal representation, connect youth to services and benefits to which they are entitled.

Every step of the way, we work with older homeless adolescents to help them move from crisis and chaos to safety and stability. Our first priority is to try to stabilize youth in their family homes. If that’s not possible, we seek another permanent connection, and/or help youth to live independently.  For youth with no other option, foster care, in an era of AB 12 provides a comprehensive safety net for eligible youth.

Here’s a bit more detail on how our work progresses:

Locate, shelter, and stabilize older homeless adolescents.

Most participants are sheltered at DreamCatcher, where they receive a safe place to sleep, food, counseling, and personal necessities. Project partner BayLegal provides on-site civil legal clinics to help youth access urgently needed benefits such as emergency food stamps or educational enrollment, along with planning for mental health needs, meeting with relatives to discuss permanency options, applying for disability benefits, or initiating contact with the child welfare system.

Civil advocacy through a portable, youth-friendly model to help youth move toward stability

Once youth are made safe through short-term stabilization, civil advocates and case managers work to help support long-term planning and stability. In addition to facilitating legal clinics,

BayLegal attorney Rachael Gardiner meets youth at fast food restaurants, cafes, or other locations, not depending on their ability or comfort in coming to a law office. Gardiner has also found that providing ‘legal advice by text’ is one of the most effective ways to work with older homeless adolescents who may not be able to attend the clinics or show up for appointments.

For youth who want to enter foster care, civil advocates provide information and support during the Child Protective Services’ investigation. If CPS decides not to open a case, the civil advocate can file directly in court, appealing CPS’s decision to a judge, if necessary.

Connecting youths and families with benefits

Civil advocates and case managers work not just with youth but also with their families to assist them in accessing benefits that allow them to re-stabilize and safely remain together. These can include income support for parents through the state welfare program, CalWORKs or through the federal Social Security Supplemental Income, or health benefits necessary to treat conditions that threaten independence.

Civil advocates also work with youth to develop permanent connections with relative or non-relative care providers through guardianships or adoptions.

Collects and analyzes data

Through the development and analysis of our extensive databases of youths’ presenting needs and their outcomes during and after participation in the project, we are creating a model for other jurisdictions around the state.  We are currently developing collaborations with our youth serving public agencies to complement our data with additional information about systems involvement and access to programs and public benefits.

Through our work, we’re not only collecting anecdotes but also sophisticated data on a large sample of youth. Our current and future publications will lay out what we’ve learned from that data about the impact of our advocacy model on both youth outcomes on public systems, and offer insights to inform work in other cities and counties struggling to address youth homelessness.

Reed Connell is the executive director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance.

On January 1, 2012, Assembly Bill 12, California’s Fostering Connections to Success Act, became law, providing for the expansion of federally funded, mandated supports and services to foster youth ages 18-21. The Alameda County AB 12 Homeless Youth Demonstration Project was timed to coincide with the implementation of this extraordinary new law. This series documents the project’s purpose, procedures, and findings.

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About Waln Brown, Ph.D. 22 Articles
Dr. Waln Brown spent his adolescence in an orphanage, detention center, state hospital and juvenile reformatory and is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation. Dr. John Seita experienced 15 foster care placements and is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University.