Q&A: A Federal Program Offers Free Legal Help for Youth

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Photograph of a law book, a gavel, and a life preserver

Young people who show up at the doors of youth-serving agencies face a host of problems. They often need housing, medical and mental health care, help staying in school—all issues that can have a legal component. Which means that sometimes, the best ally a youth worker could have in untangling thorny issues for their clients is a lawyer. Even better, a pro-bono lawyer.

Recently, NCFY spoke to Cheryl Nolan of the Legal Services Corporation, a congressionally supported organization that funds civil legal services for low-income Americans. She explained the ways legal aid programs can help youth get out of tricky situations.

NCFY: What are some typical civil legal problems that young people face? And what can legal aid do to help?

Nolan: Some youth returning from incarceration or juvenile detention would be interested in looking to see if they qualify for expungement, or sealing of their criminal record. Also, many times youth find that there are incorrect items or information that are reported on their criminal records and that can impede their ability to get reintegrated into society by getting a job or getting into a school system. Legal aid programs can make sure that all the information is correct and see if they qualify for expungement.

Legal aid programs are also highly experienced at advocating on behalf of youth at school discipline, suspension or expulsion hearings, and also with special education.

In terms of teen pregnancy and teen parents, legal aid programs are highly experienced in helping to establish child support, which can really help stabilize a young family by helping provide a source of regular income. They can also assist with application and eligibility for government benefits, which would be cash aid, food stamps, WIC [Women, Infants and Children] benefits, social security, disability.

Legal aid programs can help young teen parents and young pregnant women with access to health care. They can help to review eligibility for health insurance, for example Medicaid or Medicare, depending on the state. If the teen parent or the young pregnant woman doesn’t have health insurance, if she’s incurred medical bills, they can help establish eligibility for health insurance retroactively and they can work with the hospitals on the debt collection.

Legal aid programs can also help to establish or maintain eligibility for subsidized housing or even help youth enforce their rights in private landlord-tenant matters.

NCFY: What can youth workers do to make sure young people get the legal aid they need?

Nolan: As many of us already know, it’s not enough just to have just a phone number and the name of a program and to hand it to a young person. Youth workers can familiarize themselves with the community agencies in their networks, introduce themselves and begin a formal collaboration.

Many legal aid programs regularly do outreach presentations at other agencies in their communities. That would be a wonderful first step to introduce the legal aid staff to young clients. Another thing youth workers can do is work out formal referral arrangements, so the young person can have a specific name and phone number and doesn’t get lost in the mass of people who are coming into a legal aid program every day.

If it’s appropriate, youth workers could even set up a formal memorandum of understanding with the legal aid program, that can be a formal contract between the two organizations about how those referrals can be made.

Find a legal aid program on the Legal Services Corporation website.

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