In Brief

J U S T I C E    M A T T E R S
The Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project: Representing Girls in Context
by Francine T. Sherman

If you could tell lawyers one thing, what would it be?

Represent the client and not just the case.

[Lawyers] should listen to what you have to say so they know what you need . . . listen to you not only about your case but also what you have to say to keep in mind what you want to do for yourself . . . for your sanity . . . get to know you.1

Girls arrive in the juvenile justice system often through paths marked by sexual and physical abuse, mental illness, substance abuse, family disconnection, and special education. They are disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system as status offenders (e.g., runaways), are exploited as prostitutes, and often violate terms of probation and parole. To make sense of these complex and multisystem pathways, legal representation must be flexible, contextual, and consistent over time.

Since the winter of 1996, the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project (JRAP), an interdisciplinary clinical program at Boston College Law School, has been formulating case strategies based on an understanding of the lives of delinquent girls and the pathways they take through the juvenile justice system. This approach has resulted in expanded resources for JRAP, greater system accountability, and fewer status offenders escalating into the delinquency system.

JRAP begins its representation when a girl enters the juvenile justice system and continues until the girl becomes an adult. Cases are referred by detention centers, parents, lawyers, and JRAP clients. Cases are chosen, in part, for their multisystem involvement. Supervised law students, collaborating with students in counseling psychology or social work, provide disposition and postdisposition representation, handle special education cases, and address the client's civil legal needs. The JRAP model uses legal strategies to access mental health, public health, and child welfare resources and represents female clients in subsequent delinquency or criminal proceedings.

In A Call for Justice,2 the disposition and postdisposition stages of the delinquency process were identified as critical areas for representation. Given high caseloads, inadequate resources, and the crucial nature of the adjudicatory process, however, defense lawyers are often unable to continue representation much beyond adjudication. A Call for Justice recommends that juvenile defenders have the flexibility to represent clients in related collateral matters and the time to develop meaningful attorney-client relationships.

Even in a State such as Massachusetts, in which youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are consistently appointed counsel, there is inadequate continuity of representation. One focus group conducted by JRAP revealed that two-thirds of the participating girls, who were appointed their first attorney when they were 14 years old or younger, had an average of four attorneys each before the age of 16. Girls with histories of abuse, running away from foster and residential placements, and a series of delinquency offenses and probation violations might be represented by several lawyers within a short time. Although some lawyers might represent a girl simultaneously on different matters, each tends to see his or her role as court-based and limited to the particular case at hand.

The JRAP model of continuous representation allows lawyer and client to plan long- and short-term legal strategies together. Law students map the client's history through the juvenile justice system in an effort to proactively examine available resources, rights, and legal strategies. Girls with extensive system histories can benefit enormously from this ongoing approach. For example, JRAP lawyers and law students might represent one young woman in postdisposition motions, treatment meetings with child welfare and juvenile justice agencies, appeals to obtain special education services, a child protective case concerning her child, an evaluation of a personal injury case, and minor adult criminal charges. Through representation that moves in and out of court, into negotiations with service providers and probation officials, and through administrative processes, JRAP lawyers collaborate with clients and model self-advocacy for teenage girls.

As the number of girls in the juvenile justice system increases, this contextual model resists the impulse to simplify and compartmentalize delinquency among girls. Focusing on the client, the pathway she takes into delinquency, and the full range of her legal needs humanizes delinquency so that the lawyer truly represents the client, and not just the case.

For Further Information

Francine T. Sherman, Director
Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project
Boston College Law School
885 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02459
617-552-2615 (fax)

  1. These quotations are from a focus group conducted by the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project with girls in a Massachusetts detention center. The focus group was designed to explore the girls' perspectives on quality legal representation.

  2. Juvenile Justice Center, 1995, A Call for Justice: An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings, Washington, DC: American Bar Association, Juvenile Justice Center.