Qualified Representation

Session 3.3

Judicial Officers Should Ensure Youth Charged with Status Offenses have Independent, Qualified and Effective Representation Throughout Status Offense Proceedings

Judges must ensure that all children who appear before them because of alleged status offenses receive independent, qualified and effective legal representation from the initial hearing to case closure.  Status offense cases can have significant consequences for youth, and an attorney can help ensure they are not unnecessarily removed from their homes or held in secure detention, deprived of entitlements and services or pushed deeper into the juvenile justice system.  A qualified attorney will also help the child present evidence in his or her defense and challenge the petitioner’s case.  If the child is adjudicated as a status offender, he or she needs counsel to help assure the disposition plan is fair and appropriate to the child’s needs.1  Moreover, counsel will help the child understand the court process, what is expected of him or her and what the consequences are for failing to comply with court mandates. 

The child’s legal representative must be independent and qualified to ensure the child receives effective assistance of counsel.  To be independent, the attorney must only represent the child’s expressed interests.  In some status offense cases, especially incorrigibility or runaway cases, the parents’ expressed interests may conflict with the child’s.  In addition, abuse, neglect or high family conflict may be significant contributing factors to the status offense charges, requiring that the child have his or her own legal representative separate from his or her parents. 

The child’s legal representative must be independent and qualified to ensure the child receives effective assistance of counsel. 

Representing children in status offense cases also requires specialized training.  As discussed in Section 2.3, professionals working with and on behalf of alleged status offenders should receive ongoing training on a variety of issues to understand the causes of status behaviors and the best ways to resolve status offense cases.  To ensure legal advocates understand how to effectively represent their client’s interests, they should receive training on topics such as:

  • What research shows about the effect court involvement and detention may have on youth (see commentary for Section 2.1 and Section 3.8).
  • What research shows regarding the factors associated with each type of status offense, including discussions of risk factors in the home, community and school.
  • How systemic failures may lead to status offense system involvement.
  • Adolescent development (see commentary for Section 1.2).
  • Trauma-informed advocacy, including understanding the effects exposure to violence and victimization can have on youth (see commentary for Section 1.4).
  • Accommodating and understanding issues relating to youth with disabilities (see commentary for Section 1.11).
  • Available screening tools, assessments and services that are appropriate for youth charged with status offenses, and how to protect youth from self-incrimination when receiving screening, assessment and services.
  • State and federal entitlements and rights that may preclude the need for court involvement.

Effective assistance of counsel, in addition to training, also requires that the child have legal representation at all stages of the status offense process and preferably before the initial hearing so counsel has time to meet and prepare with his or her client.  The lawyer must also have the resources to conduct a proper investigation and prepare for evidentiary and disposition hearings.  Effective representation also requires that compensation for appointed counsel is fair and that caseloads are not excessively high.2

1 A Call For Justice: An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings (2002).  Washington, DC: ABA Juvenile Justice Center, Youth Law Center and the Juvenile Law Center.  Available at: http://www.njdc.info/pdf/cfjfull.pdf.

2 See Juvenile Delinquency Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Juvenile Delinquency Cases (2005). Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Chapter 3, pg. 78-79.