Complex issues often keep teens from taking full advantage of the educational opportunities available to them: abusive parents, homelessness, special ed needs, or immigration issues. Teens might be parents themselves, and need financial assistance so they can finish high school. They could 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 clinic was on site at Hartford Public High School, one of six school-based legal services programs in the country at that time. We are now on site at Bridgeport’s Harding High School and provide legal services to youth in schools, shelters, and community agencies. The Center’s new mobile legal office brings our attorneys directly to community locations.
SpeakUpTeens.org provides practical information for teens.
Our publications cover many topics:
Individual cases expose systemic issues. Through administrative and legislative advocacy, we promote change to policies and practices:
We provide training for teens and for professionals who work with teens.
Training helps teens understand their legal rights and advocate for themselves when issues arise.
Professional training helps attorneys, child advocates and agency personnel recognize and respond to legal issues. 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.
Born in Nigeria, Baya lost her mother when she was six months old. Baya was cared for by her maternal grandmother, but when she was eight, her grandmother died and her father arranged to bring her to his home in the U.S. 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. Her father turned over her documents and ceased all support and contact.
Baya always assumed there was no way she could get legal status in this country. 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 Status (SIJS) and referred Baya to the Center for Children’s Advocacy.
Baya clearly qualified for commitment to DCF, a prerequisite for SIJS status (which leads to green card). Although she had been functionally adopted by another couple, she was never legally adopted, and she’d been 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, we 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 in DCF care as long as they are in college. Because federal immigration law deems children minors until they turn 21, this leaves a three-year window for SIJS petitions.)
Before the hearing, DCF told us 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.
Our legal advocacy means that Baya will receive DCF support until she graduates, and she can file for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and become a Lawful Permanent Resident of the United States.
Our work with Shantel began with education issues, but we quickly realized that she needed much more to change the course of her young life.
As a mentally challenged 18 year old, with very little family or community support, Shantel needed assistance to appeal an improper denial of Supplemental Security Income and help to get services from the Department of Development Services. We also helped her appeal an improper delay in cash benefits from the Department of Social Services, and we advocated for her rights to educational stability as a homeless student under the federal law.
Faced with her disability and the debilitating effects of domestic violence, Shantel’s life was in crisis when we met her. She was moving from shelter to shelter, and it was difficult for her to manage each day.
Our aggressive advocacy ensured that Shantel could stay in school and get transportation to and from school, even if she had to move. We helped Shantel get into an appropriate vocational educational program by filing for a hearing at the State Department of Education. We navigated her application for cash benefits to avoid further delay. And we addressed her long-term financial needs, winning reversal of an improper denial from the Social Security Administration to ensure that Shantel’s disability-based assistance is met.
Tamara was referred to the Teen Legal Advocacy Clinic by a social worker at school. Tamara had been living in a temporary shelter for four months. The social worker was worried that Tamara was going to run away because she had been waiting so long for an appropriate placement. Conditions in the shelter were bad, and Tamara’s DCF worker was unresponsive.
We called up the chain of command at DCF to help Tamara get an appropriate placement. We worked closely with Tamara’s lawyer to provide technical assistance on matters like conditions at the shelter and Tamara’s right to educational stability under the federal McKinney-Vento Act.
We helped Tamara’s lawyer advocate for her in Juvenile Court, and we addressed the systemic concern by proposing legislation to address overstays in youth emergency placements on a statewide level.
Here’s what Tamara said when she testified at the hearing: “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.”
Stacey Violante Cote, Esq.
Director, Teen Legal Advocacy Project
Edwin Colon, Esq.
Staff Attorney, Teen Legal Advocacy Project