Legal Aid’s Youth Law Project: Protecting Young Clients Through the Pandemic

Legal Aid's Youth Law Project

Legal Aid’s Youth Law Project (YLP) attorneys haven’t seen many clients in the office over the past year and a half, but that’s nothing new. Their clients – youth up to age 24 – don’t come to the law office. They usually communicate with their attorneys through phone or text. Occasionally they meet in person or virtually at a drop-in center, shelter, or school, or at one of the 250 legal kiosk locations around the state.

Throughout the pandemic, most agencies and shelters that serve youth have been closed or running at reduced capacity. YLP makes initial contact with many clients through these community partners and maintaining those relationships has never been more important. 

“We’ve replaced in-person outreach with virtual check-ins,” says Supervising Attorney Pheng Thao. “We attend shelter and agency Zoom staff meetings, help them identify legal issues, and remind them that we’re here and available.”

Unsurprisingly, YLP has seen an increase in emancipation questions over the past year. With kids attending school virtually and parents working at home, tensions can rise. When a situation escalates, teens who end up living with family friends or relatives have questions about housing and medical care.

The pandemic brought a sharp uptick in healthcare concerns, particularly COVID testing and vaccinations. Underage clients who are away from home and managing their own financial affairs can consent to their own dental, medical, and healthcare services. They don’t need parental permission, but that doesn’t mean the provider has to provide services. 

In a recent case, a 14-year-old trans youth (let’s call them Jordyn), was kicked out of the house by their parent and moved in with an older sibling. Jordyn had been living away from home for four months when they ran into difficulty getting healthcare.

“I drafted a letter for Jordyn’s medical providers, explaining the situation,” Thao says. “The law says Jordyn can legally consent to their own healthcare, and I spelled that out clearly.”

Jordyn successfully used that letter to get services outside of school. However, the school-based clinic still wanted a parent’s consent, and Jordyn’s mother refused to be involved. The school social worker reached out to Thao, who followed up with a phone call. In most cases where there’s pushback to healthcare, a call from an attorney solves the problem. 

Since 2014, YLP has been providing comprehensive civil legal services to sexually exploited youth in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Safe Harbor/No Wrong Door network with a focus on outreach to Native and LGBTQ+ youth. YLP attorneys focus on providing them with comprehensive legal services.

“Housing is a big concern,” says Thao. “A young person who doesn’t have housing is especially vulnerable to being exploited for sex trafficking. If they’re a member of the LGBTQ community, the risk is higher. It takes time to establish trust and rapport with a young person, and if they’ve gone through a traumatic event, we want to stick with them through the process. They shouldn’t have to repeat their story to another professional. We do whatever we can to prevent further trauma and exploitation.”

The YLP team offers training on youth rights and responsibilities to young people and agencies who serve them, ranging from informal Q&A to “Know Your Rights” presentations. A number of Legal Aid staff are multilingual, and the organization provides free interpreters when needed. The Youth Law Project welcomes calls or emails from youth or agency staff anywhere in Minnesota who would like help from an attorney.

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