Juvenile Law Center

Child Welfare and Foster Care|Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Access to Counsel

Every day, vulnerable children suffer life-altering consequences because they lack an attorney to zealously advocate on their behalf, seek fair treatment, and hold public systems accountable.

Youth in the justice system must deal with incarceration, the loss of educational and employment opportunities, and life-long stigmatization. Children in abuse and neglect cases face similarly challenging outcomes, including separation from siblings, multiple foster homes and institutional placements, and repeated school disruptions that impede their success.

The United States Constitution guarantees youth a right to counsel in delinquency proceedings.1 To date, the United States Supreme Court has not found an equivalent constitutional right to counsel in dependency court, but about 30 states require representation for youth in abuse and neglect proceedings by statute.2 Even in those jurisdictions where children have attorneys, heavy caseloads and lack of resources too often prevent counsel from providing high-quality, holistic representation.   

Juvenile Law Center strives to ensure a robust right to counsel for all youth in dependency and delinquency cases. Through litigation, policy reform, advocacy, and education, we work to enforce and promote this right and to enhance the skills, resources, and capacity of children’s attorneys.

Notable examples of our work include our involvement in the Luzerne County “kids-for cash” scandal, where we collaborated with legislators and policymakers to ensure that, regardless of their parents’ income, all children have access to counsel and do not waive this right. We have co-authored amicus briefs in several states in support of children’s access to counsel. Furthermore, we play an active role in the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Litigation’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee, which successfully advocated for ABA adoption of a model law for the representation of children in dependency proceedings.  

We also train counsel for children in dependency, delinquency, and adult criminal proceedings across the country in partnership with such organizations as the National Association of Counsel for Children, the ABA Center on Children and the LawNational Juvenile Defender Center, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).
2 University of San Diego School of Law’s Children’s Advocacy Institute & First Star, A Child’s Right to Counsel A National Report Card on Legal Representation for Abused & Neglected Children 10 (3d ed.)

Last update: 2/8/2015

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One of the most important lessons from our 40 years of experience is that children involved with the justice and foster care systems need zealous legal advocates. Your support for our work is more important now than ever before. Support