Complex issues with a legal component often keep teenagers from taking full advantage of the educational opportunities available to them.
Teens may be dealing with abusive parents, homelessness, special education needs, or immigration issues. They might be teen parents and need financial assistance so they can finish high school, or be living in a shelter without transportation to school.
The Center for Children’s Advocacy established the Teen Legal Advocacy Project in 1998. The first school clinic was on site at Hartford Public High School, making it one of six school-based legal services programs in the country at that time. The Project now has an office on site at Bridgeport’s Harding High School and provides legal services to youth in all Hartford schools, youth living in shelters, and youth working with other community agencies.
We offer legal training, individual legal representation and systemic advocacy, to provide support for children and youth throughout Connecticut. Our legal staff provides advice and representation to help teens solve the crises in their lives that cause them to drop out of school.
SpeakUpTeens.org, our new teen legal rights website, provides practical information for teens who are homeless, forced out and without a stable living situation.
TLAC publications on these issues are linked below. The types of cases and questions include:
Individual cases expose systemic issues. Through administrative and legislative advocacy, CCA staff promotes changes to policies and practices that will benefit the largest number of teens, including:
The Teen Legal Advocacy Clinic provides trainings for teens and for professionals working with teens throughout the state.
Trainings for teens help youth understand their legal rights and know how to advocate for themselves when issues arise. These trainings often include education on legal issues and the contacts in agencies who can help teens resolve their legal problems.
Professional trainings help attorneys, child advocates and agency or placement personnel who work with teens recognize and respond appropriately to legal issues affecting teens. Training topics include statutory rape, the legal rights of teens in foster care, the legal rights of teens in group placements, teens’ access to state and federal benefits, the educational rights of homeless children and youth, and immigration laws affecting teens.
Publications and links on teen legal topics, including Adolescent Health Care, Benefits and Child Support, Medical Coverage, Detention, Emancipation, Immigration, Pregnant and Parenting Teens, Runaway and Homeless Youth, Education, Teen Dating Violence, Rights in DCF Care.
Baya, born in Nigeria, lost her mother when she was only six months old. Baya was cared for by her maternal grandmother, but when she was eight, her grandmother died and her father, whom she had never met, arranged to bring her to his home in the U.S. to take over her care. Within a short time, both her father and stepmother were physically abusing her. Following custom, other members of the Nigerian community intervened and assumed Baya’s care. Baya’s father turned over her documents and ceased all support and contact with her.
Baya always assumed that there was no way she could get legal status in this country and never sought any assistance to address the matter. She became an exceptional student, earning money during high school by winning writing competitions, becoming valedictorian of her class, and receiving a full, private scholarship to a prestigious university.
Just before her 18th birthday, Baya mentioned her situation to someone in the international student office at her university, who referred her to the United States Commission on Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). The USCRI thought she might qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status and referred her to the Center for Children’s Advocacy’s Teen Legal Advocacy Clinic.
CCA determined that Baya clearly qualified for commitment to DCF, a prerequisite for SIJ status (which leads to green card). Although she had been functionally adopted by another couple, she was never legally adopted, and she was inarguably abused and abandoned by her only living legal guardian. Although Baya had a full college scholarship, she had no money for clothes, no housing outside of the school year or during holidays, and was subject to constant risk of deportation to a country where she knows no one.
Because of the short time before her 18th birthday, CCA immediately filed a neglect petition in juvenile court and got a hearing date. (Under Connecticut law, children can only be committed to DCF before they turn 18, but once committed can remain voluntarily in DCF care provided they are in college. Because federal immigration law deems children minors until they turn 21, this leaves a three-year window for SIJ petitions.)
In conversations prior to the hearing, DCF told CCA that they would oppose Baya’s commitment because she was too close to her 18th birthday, because she had not really been neglected, and because she was doing too well on her own to need the Department’s help. None of these arguments has any basis in law..
CCA’s legal advocacy means that Baya will receive DCF support until she graduates, and she can now file for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and become a Lawful Permanent Resident of the United States.
Shantel’s case began as an educational case. However, it quickly became clear that she needed much more advocacy in order to change the course of her young life. As a mentally retarded 18 year old, with little to no family or community support, Shantel needed advocacy on several different fronts. These included assistance with applying for, and appealing an improper denial of, Supplemental Security Income, and assistance in accessing services from the Connecticut Department of Mental Retardation. In addition, the Center also helped her to apply for, and appeal an improper delay in the receipt of cash benefits from the Connecticut Department of Social Services as well as advocated for her rights to educational stability as a homeless student under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Faced with her mental disability and the debilitating effects of domestic violence, Shantel’s life was in crisis when we met her. She did not know how to navigate the many bureaucracies involved in her life to effectuate her legal rights. She was also moving from shelter to shelter on a frequent basis, which made it difficult for her to manage her day-to-day living.
Through the Legal Clinic’s aggressive advocacy, the Director ensured that Shantel was able to remain at Hartford Public High School, and receive transportation to and from school, while she moved around from shelter to shelter. The Legal Clinic successfully advocated for an appropriate vocational educational program by filing for a hearing at the State Department of Education. The result of which was a settlement agreement for a private program to work with her on a 1:1 basis. Through the Clinic’s administrative advocacy, the Director also navigated her stalled application for cash benefits before it was officially denied at the Department of Social Services, thus avoiding the further delay of a hearing and getting the benefits for she and her family sooner. Lastly, the Clinic is addressing her long-term financial needs by sheparding the reversal of an improper denial of assistance from the Social Security Administration to ensure that Shantel’s disability-based entitlement to cash assistance is met.
Tamara was referred to the Teen Legal Advocacy Clinic by a social worker at Hartford Public High School. The social worker referred her to the Clinic because Tamara had been living in a temporary shelter under the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) for four months. The social worker was especially concerned that Tamara was going to run away due to the length of time she had been waiting for an appropriate placement, the untenable conditions in the shelter, and the lack of responsiveness from her DCF worker. The Legal Clinic Director met with Tamara and immediately began advocating for her legal rights.
First, the Legal Clinic began by calling up the chain of command at DCF to administratively advocate that Tamara be placed in an appropriate placement. Because of the Clinic’s experience with other youth who had overstayed in shelters under the care of DCF, the Director was very much aware that shelter stays were intended to be no more than 45 days. The Director worked closely with DCF Central Office staff to make them aware of Tamara’s length of stay, and to monitor efforts being made at the regional office to find an appropriate placement.
Next, the Legal Clinic worked closely with Tamara’s court-appointed lawyer to provide technical assistance on matters including the conditions at the shelter and enforcing Tamara’s right to educational stability under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Concerns at the shelter included inappropriate treatment by staff members, unduly restrictive rules, and lack of follow-up for appropriate health care. With the Clinic’s assistance, Tamara’s lawyer became aware of these issues and of her legal rights. She then used this information to advocate for Tamara in Juvenile Court.
Lastly, the Clinic addressed the systemic concern by proposing legislation to address the problem of overstays in youth emergency placements on a statewide level. The Director wrote a bill which would have limited the length of stay for youth in such placements, provided court oversight when overstays occurred, and created a task force to study the problem. Tamara herself testified at the hearing saying, “It wasn’t my fault that I had to live in a shelter, so I didn’t understand why people were treating me this way. I wish that I would have been treated like a normal person who has feelings.” Although the legislation did not pass, it was an important tool for raising awareness of the plight of youth such as Tamara and the need for further reform.
For more information about the Center’s Teen Legal Advocacy, contact:
Stacey Violante Cote, Esq.
Director, Teen Legal Advocacy Project
Edwin Colon, Esq.
Staff Attorney, Teen Legal Advocacy Project