Access to Counsel

Since 1967, youth have had a constitutional right to counsel during juvenile court proceedings. In In re Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that youth need the “guiding hand of counsel” to assist them in court, and if a child cannot afford an attorney, the court must appoint one to represent them. Still today, in too many cases, youth are pressured to appear without counsel and, even when represented, attorneys often lack the resources to provide adequate representation. Also, youth in the child welfare system do not have an equivalent constitutional right. Only 32 states statutorily require some form legal representation for youth in abuse and neglect cases.

Strong legal representation is crucial for system-involved children. Youth need qualified and zealous attorneys who will advocate on their behalf, demand fair treatment, and hold systems accountable.

Representation in Court Matters

Even when youth do have attorneys, heavy caseloads and sparse resources often prevent counsel from providing the high-quality, individualized and holistic representation young people need and deserve. Without high quality representation, youth may be unjustly found delinquent, incarcerated, or even be transferred to adult court.

A Robust Right to Counsel

Young people in the child welfare and justice systems should be represented at every stage of their case. Attorneys representing youth should have specific training on adolescent development and specialized knowledge about juvenile court procedures. Youth need experienced advocates to help them navigate court proceedings, understand their rights, and recognize the short- and long-term consequences of court involvement. 

Juvenile Law Center advocates for a robust right to counsel for all youth in the child welfare and justice systems. We also collaborate with national partners to train attorneys for youth in dependency, delinquency, and adult criminal court. We work to ensure that attorneys for youth are directed by their clients and have the expertise needed for effective advocacy, that attorneys are always provided for youth regardless of the child or family income, and that youth cannot waive their right to counsel. These protections ensure that young people get fair treatment in the justice and child welfare systems.

Images: © Richard Ross,

Luzerne "Kids for Cash" Scandal

In 2007, a frantic call from an alarmed parent prompted Juvenile Law Center to investigate irregularities in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County juvenile court. What we found was shocking.

From 2003 to 2008, the Luzerne County judicial corruption scandal altered the lives of more than 2500 children and involved more than 6000 cases. Over 50 percent of the children who appeared before Ciavarella lacked legal representation; 60 percent of these children were removed from their homes.