Do Children in Juvenile Court Have Advocates?

children in juvenile courtMost people are aware that children charged with crimes in Juvenile Court all have the right to a lawyer.  But what about younger children?  Kids who may be in Juvenile Court because of child protection matters, for instance.  Do children in Juvenile Court have advocates?

Here’s an example from my own practice as a lawyer in Juvenile Court.  It’s the case of Donnie, an 11-year old boy who was, once again, charged with stealing cars.  Actually, it was his seventh stolen car.  It occurred at a school athletic field where a maintenance man had left his school car while he mowed the lawn.  Donnie was so short that when the maintenance man looked up from mowing he saw the car moving—but he couldn’t see anyone in the driver’s seat.

Donnie provides a great example of what children in Juvenile Court have as advocates.

—For younger kids, like Donnie, they aren’t considered criminally liable (they’re still responsible for their behavior), but there must be some kind of response from the courts.  In my state of Minnesota, the prosecutor would file a CHIPS (a version of the phrase: CHildren In need of Protection or Services) Petition.  It would allege the child to be in need of some kind of intervention and services.  It’s not a delinquency (criminal) action.

—It puts the burden back on the parents and a legal reason for the courts to stick their nose in the parent’s lives.  The courts can offer appropriate services and help the child correct the bad behavior.

—During the CHIPS proceedings, if the child is 10 years or older, they have the right to a lawyer.  This will usually be a Public Defender since the child’s financial ability is looked at rather than the parent’s abilities.  (For wealthy parents, they may be required to reimburse the government for the lawyer’s services)  It’s important to remember that the lawyer for the child will advocate what the child wants.  It’s exactly the same relationship a lawyer would have with an adult client.  The lawyer does not advocate for what’s in the best interest of the child.

—The advocacy for the best interest of children in juvenile court falls to the Guardian ad Litem and the prosecutor.  The guardians are generally volunteers but receive extensive training in preparation for working with the children.  They report directly to the court and will advocate whatever they feel is in the best interest of the child.  It’s a different advocacy from the child’s lawyer who advocates for whatever the child wants.  The idea is that between these two advocates, the court will get a complete picture of the child’s wants and needs.

So, what happened to Donnie?  He was eventually removed from the home and sent to a foster home.  His blood mother wasn’t watching him closely and not sending him to school.  When the judge asked her about Donnie’s car stealing, she shrugged and said only that, “Donnie, he sure do like his cars.”  Clueless.

Do any of you have experience in advocating for children in juvenile court?  What’s been your experience?

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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