It is Time Our Voices are Heard

Changing the system so youth voices can be heard

It is Time Our Voices are Heard

Youths are not 1-dimensional names in a stack of documents in the courtroom, they are individuals who have a right to have their views and experiences heard in the court on an ongoing basis. As a youth who spent seven years in part of the legal system, I have learned how effective it is to have a youth’s input in the courtroom and their involvement in the evolution of our system. While impacted by the legal system, I experienced social workers, police, lawyers, court-appointed psychologists, and the occurrence of over 100 court interactions. The family justice system was a major part of my childhood, which has given me insight into its beneficial and non-beneficial parts. The best asset I found was a free children’s lawyer, who represented my two sisters and me, and ultimately saw us protected from our abuser.

There is a common notion that informing children of what is happening in court adds unnecessary stress to their lives, but the truth is they are stressed regardless. Their lives are already chaotic without the added ambiguity of not knowing what is going on in court. If a child chooses to engage in the process with a lawyer, it will be stressful; but this stress is unto working toward a desired outcome, that of having their needs and desires expressed in the process. This is in preference to the stress induced by being tossed around by detrimental decisions that were made without our input.

Having a lawyer gives children the ability to have their feelings, needs, and experiences accurately represented to the judge. Children’s lawyers help kids understand how the system works and prepare them emotionally and mentally for the process. They explain in an unbiased and educated manner what is going on in each hearing, and how it will affect them. This allows children to manage their expectations for each court date and understand that not all hearings will bring a solution or decision. Children’s legal representation gives kids the ability to receive legal advice to make informed decisions about how they want to proceed through the system to get the result they want, which for my sisters and I was no contact with our abusive parent.

The relationship we had with our lawyer was a solicitor-client-based model, which is the most proactive and empowering method for adhering to children’s legal rights. Other models like a Friend to the Court and the Best Interest Model remove the major benefit of lawyer-client privilege1. Solicitor-client model is the only place in the system where children have complete confidentiality. With all other professionals, children are at the mercy of their interpretation of their views and the accuracy of how they are conveyed to the court.

It is vital that youth’s voices are represented and acknowledged in any legal process that impacts their lives. As most legal proceedings revolve around the child’s life, it is vital that they have their needs and perspective continuously presented in court and mediation through their own representation. It is not enough to hear from us from singular reports that quickly become outdated, and do not speak to the evolving needs in our life. Furthermore, youth voices need to be central to any movement to reform the system. Family justice system actors need to hear from young people who lived through the system when considering reform measures. Empowered youth who experienced the system firsthand are vital to identify fault lines and calling out ill-conceived ideas of what the best interests of the child actually are.

  1. I would like to note these alternative methods are effective for infants and children who are unable to articulate their needs or cannot instruct, but once a child can instruct and articulate they deserve to have an unfiltered voice. |