Youth Engagement

Section 1.5

Judicial, Legal, Law Enforcement, Justice, Social Service and School Professionals Should Implement a Status Offense System Framework that Promotes Shared Leadership and Responsibility By Encouraging Youth Engagement in Court, Agency, and Other Meetings Affecting their Case, Safety, Well-being, Treatment Services and/or Placement

It is critically important that youth have a voice in their status offense cases, where others are making critical decisions about their lives. Youth involvement can range from gaining their input about the services in which they participate to where they may live or when and how they interact with their parents.  In some instances, the petitioning party is a parent/guardian or the youth is in conflict with a parent.  Here, too, ensuring the youth’s voice is heard separately and apart from the parent’s is essential to negotiate a successful resolution of the matter and to assure fairness.  Youth engagement must begin when professional service systems first respond to an alleged status offense matter and continue throughout diversion and court processes.  Youth should be given the opportunity to participate in all agency meetings, alternative dispute resolution sessions and court hearings affecting their case. Youth engagement should also be undertaken consistent with the principles on trauma discussed in Section 1.4.

Youth engagement must begin when professional service systems first respond to an alleged status offense matter and continue throughout and court processes.  

Implementing a framework that promotes youth engagement at all stages will greatly benefit youth, youth-serving agencies and courts.  By being present in court and meetings, youth can offer important insights into their lives and the causes of the alleged behavior, and gain a better understanding of the agency and court processes.  Empowering youth early to understand the status offense process and its repercussions can also serve as an important tool to encourage shared responsibility in resolving problems and limiting court involvement.  Likewise, youth presence in court and meetings also benefits judges and professionals who will be able to make more informed decisions for youth and their families.

There is a growing body of knowledge and guidance about youth empowerment, voice and engagement in child welfare and foster care.  Although there is little guidance available about youth involvement in status offense proceedings, many of the reforms being applied in child welfare are also applicable to youth charged with non-delinquent behaviors. Recommendations for courts to enhance youth voice and participation include: 1

  • Having a fair, impartial, and orderly system to support youth voice and involvement.
  • Reaching a consensus among all stakeholders regarding youth participation in court and agency meetings.
  • Requiring and facilitating youth attendance in their court hearings and agency meetings.
  • Recognizing that youth gain a sense of control through involvement in their court proceedings.

There is also applicable child welfare literature on addressing logistical and other concerns when implementing a system that supports youth engagement and empowerment.  Recommendations for youth-serving agencies and youth lawyers include: 2

  • To the fullest extent possible, schedule meetings and hearings before or after school hours for school-aged youth.  When a youth is not able to attend in person, consider allowing him/her to participate via alternative means, such as video-conferencing or conference calls.    
  • Explain your role to the youth and what issues you can and cannot address.
  • Avoid using acronyms or legal jargon that may make it difficult for the youth to understand what is happening during the meeting or hearing.
  • Prepare the youth for upcoming meetings or court hearings by telling the youth who will be present, what their roles will be, what is expected to happen, and what the youth’s involvement will entail.
  • If the youth is expected to speak or testify, provide guidance about how to do so most effectively.  Advise the youth if other participants will ask him/her questions and what the nature of those questions may be.
  • Provide age-appropriate reading materials to the youth to describe the court or agency process.

1 Adapted from: Children’s Bureau Express (2009). Spotlight on Encouraging Youth Involvement in Dependency Hearings. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Vol. 10, No. 10. (referencing Pitchal, E. (Winter 2008). “Where Are All the Children? Increasing Youth Participation in Dependency Proceedings," UC Davis Journal of Juvenile Law & Policy, Vol. 12).

2 Khoury, A. (2007). “With Me, not Without me: How to Involve Children in Court.” in Child Law Practice Vol. 26, No. 9; Washington D.C.: American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. Available at
; Khoury, A. (2008).   “Establishing Policies for Youth in Court—Overcoming Common Concerns.” Washington, D.C.: American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. Available at: