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Youth Justice Project helps stabilize low-income youth

By Elisa C. Advani, Philadephia Bar Reporter | August 1, 2015

Emerging Leader Fellow Claire Grandison and her Fellowship are featured in the Philadelphia Bar Reporter.

Low-income youth in Philadelphia face a number of obstacles in their paths to stable and secure adulthoods. Legal services organizations can only help them by collaborating and sharing resources, members of the Philadelphia Bar Association were told on July 13. Attorney Claire Grandison, a Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow; and attorney Jamie Gullen, of Community Legal Services (CLS), Employment Unit created the Youth Justice Project to develop a more holistic approach to representing low-income youth. The project aims to build a coalition of advocates working on behalf of youth to share resources, streamline referrals, develop best practices for youth-representation and advance needed policy changes to ensure that youth receive the support necessary to transition successfully into adulthood.

The age bracket that Grandison and Gullen focus on is from 16-26. Grandison assists youth who are cut off from their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) when they turn 18, as the system is set up to automatically review SSI benefits when a claimant reaches that age. A staggering “71 percent of claimants are cut off after this review process in Pennsylvania. This is concerning, especially since youth lose vital financial support as they leave high school and there is strong evidence showing that brain development continues to about age 26,” Grandison said. She is currently working diligently to get the cut-off rate for 18-year-olds down to at least the national average of 55 percent. As part of her fellowship, Grandison helped produce an educational video instructing youth on the steps to take to preserve their benefits. For example, they should “go to the doctor, go see a vocational rehabilitation counselor and try to get an attorney to represent them at the SSI hearing,” said Grandison.

CLS serves, on average, 11,000 low-income clients per year with legal issues including consumer protection, public benefits, employment and housing and utilities rights. For Grandison and Gullen, young people are in particular need of these supports from the legal community because many of their legal rights and responsibilities change during the transition to adulthood and they often face multiple legal issues simultaneously. In Philadelphia, the unemployment rate for youth ages 16-24 is 29 percent; for youth ages 16-24 who do not have a high school diploma, the unemployment rate is 60 percent; and over 75 percent of CLS youth clientele have zero income. “Most of that 75 percent would probably qualify for benefits, and they are not accessing them,” said Gullen.

Gullen pointed out that in low-income communities, youth are often stripped of their adolescence because of setbacks like incarceration, teen pregnancy or foster care. Therefore, they are actually still transitioning into adulthood into their early- and mid-twenties, even though many statutes and regulations state that adulthood begins at the age of 18.

Gullen shared an anecdote about a 19-year-old client and her one-year-old son who endured extreme poverty and periods of homelessness when the mother was unable to find or keep a job. After finally landing a position in a mailroom, she was fired once her background check came back. To the young mother’s surprise, she essentially had a criminal record for an incident that occurred years prior while she was still in school. She was involved in a fight with a boy who had been harassing her, which led the school police to charge her with a summary citation for disorderly conduct. Gullen and her team not only helped this young woman to a more stable future, but they helped amend the regulations that allowed juvenile summary citations to appear in an individual’s background check.

Community outreach is of utmost importance. One of Grandison’s goals is to have a Spanish version of the educational video, as well as all of their materials translated into Spanish. Gullen talked about another project where volunteers go into communities and conduct intakes for criminal records expungement. The project is successful in that volunteers have been able to file the proper paperwork and get records expunged without further meetings with the client beyond the initial intake. These legal services and others are what Philadelphia youth need to work toward a brighter, more stable future.

Originally published in the Philadelphia Bar Reporter.

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