Juvenile Justice Systems around the Globe: Alternative Ways to Address Youth (“AWAY”) Project

The “AWAY” Project analyzed changes implemented in the various juvenile justice systems of several European countries over the course of two years- from 2017 to 2018. [1] The countries included in the analysis were Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Belgium. The project’s main research questions were: (1) What are the existing measures and processes for diversion that exist in the countries, and in what percentage of cases of children in conflict with the law are they used?; (2) What factors (existing needs, gaps and pitfalls) hinder better and more frequent use of diversion and child-friendly justice practices?; and (3) what needs to be improved in the juvenile justice system to promote diversion and restorative justice using a child friendly approach? [2] Over the course of several blogs, I will discuss the findings of the “AWAY” project as it relates to the specific countries, and what the United States can take away and implement in our own system.

Juvenile Justice System: Belgium

Throughout Europe, national and European legislation (along with the ratification of the CRC) establishes that individuals under the age of 18 are considered children with limited legal capacity. [3] In Belgium, the juvenile justice system is called “protective justice” and the term “act deemed to constitute an offence (ADCO)” is used in place of “crime” or “offence” to enforce the view that children are not fully capable of understanding the nature of their criminal actions. [4] If a child is suspected of an “ADCO,” they will first meet with the police and be informed of their rights. [5]A prosecutor then has the choice to refer the case to the juvenile court or use a diversion method. These methods include taking no action, issuing a warning, or suggesting mediation with the victim. If a case is referred to a juvenile court, the judge has the option to issue several measures aimed at allowing the child to remain with their family or legal guardian. These options include issuing a warning, an order to take on a written project, outpatient therapy, community or educational services, restorative options, or for the child to go under supervision. In rare circumstances, the judge may place the child with a temporary guardian, or in an institution for psychiatric, therapeutic, or education services. [6]

Belgium’s system focuses on restorative justice and aims to repair the damage done by an ADCO and restore the bond between the perpetrator and the victim. If a victim has been identified the prosecutor must consider mediation, and if they choose against it, they must issue a written document stating that they have considered it but concluded that other measures are needed. All parties must agree on the mediation. The goal of the system is to keep the child with their families or legal guardian and always consider a restorative measure first. [7]

In comparison to the U.S. juvenile justice system, the “protective justice” system of Belgium gives police, prosecutors, judges, victims, children, and their parents/guardians far more options. Institutionalization is viewed as a last resort and there are multiple safeguards put in place to ensure it stays that way. Additionally, I think the language that the Belgium system uses is something the U.S. system could borrow from. It enforces the fact that that children’s brains are still developing, and as a result they are not able to fully comprehend the criminality of their actions in the way most fully developed adult brains could.

[1] Éva Kerpel et al., Alternative Ways to Address Youth (AWAY) Project Research Synthesis Report 5 (Viktória Sebhelyi et al. eds., 2018).

[2] Id. at 6.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 22.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 23.

The Runaways: Foster Youth & Sex Trafficking in Houston, TX

I can say without controversy, and as a die-hard Houstonian, that the streets of Houston are not an ideal place for unaccompanied minors— especially those without adequate resources and support—to have healthy, formative experiences. And yet, thousands of children find themselves in this situation every year. The Texas Department of Family & Protective Services reported that 1,707 youth placed under their conservatorship ran away from their placements in 2017. In its annual Foster Youth Runaway Report, DFPS noted that being a runaway or homeless youth constitutes the number one risk factor for exploitation. A total of 35 young people reported having been sex trafficked while on runaway status in 2017, per that same report.

Establishing a causal link between homelessness and exploitation in young people might seem straightforward or even obvious given the lack of resources, familial support, stability, and guidance inherent to being unhoused. But unpacking the concrete reality of the situation reveals even more distressing truths. According to several studies cited in a 2013 report by the HHS Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF), anywhere from fifty to more than ninety percent of children who were victims of sex trafficking had been previously involved with child welfare services. What do we make of this unsettling correlation? How are we failing foster kids by allowing them to fall victim to trafficking?

Last week, I attended a Zoom panel hosted by the Juvenile & Children’s Advocacy Project (JCAP), United Against Human Trafficking (UAHT), and Unbound Houston, an organization centered on human trafficking awareness and prevention. One of the panelists, NH, spoke on the harrowing experience of foster care and surviving human trafficking. She pointed out that, when dealing with trafficking allegations, DFPS focuses its investigations on the child’s household; that is, the Department only has the legal authority to investigate the people directly responsible for the child’s welfare, like a parent or legal guardian. Traffickers don’t typically target members of their own households, let alone their own children. But the 2013 ACYF report noted that sex traffickers often recruit foster kids from group homes. And in NH’s case, the Department actually approved placement for her—a pregnant minor at the time—in a home with the man who would be her trafficker. Such a complete oversight shocks the conscience and makes one wonder: What, if anything, is being done to prevent this from happening?

In 2017, DFPS established the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Division (HTCE); two years later, DFPS implemented a screening tool, called the Commercial Sexual Exploitation – Identification Tool (CSE-IT), developed to help caseworkers identify potential victims of trafficking among the kids who come under the care of the Department. The State is taking steps toward ameliorating the issue of child sex trafficking, largely due to widespread criticism—and legal action—regarding its previous methods. However, in 2019, DFPS reported that 2,122 kids under their conservatorship had run away at some point in the year and that 46 of those reported being sex trafficked—an increase in both the number of runaways and in trafficking instances compared to 2017. (Although this could be due to improved tracking/reporting systems). Also, data shows that sex trafficking cases (both of adults and youth) in Harris County actually doubled in 2019, with no indication of these numbers decreasing. Naturally, the 2020 pandemic has had some impact on these statistics, and perhaps it is still too early to determine whether the efforts of HTCE and DFPS’s improved screening techniques will help kids in situations like NH’s. But there is still the issue of the runaways.

From what I’ve learned working with trafficked youth over the past few months, part of the problem lies in the fact that many kids prefer the streets to foster placements, which often impose strict rules and services the kids just aren’t interested in. The teens (particularly the older ones) may struggle to connect with their caregivers and advocates, and would rather be among their chosen folk in a looser, more familiar environment. Overcoming the effects of grooming is also a major challenge; as I’ve unfortunately witnessed, recovered runaways are prone to return to their traffickers at the earliest chance they get. This is where HTCE and organizations like UAHT, Unbound Houston, and Harris County Youth Collective (HCYC) get it really right: by focusing on community awareness and offering resources for kids involved with the system outside the system. 

Part of HTCE’s efforts—like those of other worthy local organizations—have involved providing outreach and education on human trafficking at the community level. Over the past year, these groups have trained thousands of people on how to recognize and prevent trafficking in their communities, established safe spaces for victims and families, and built databases for connecting individuals with the resources they need most (See: the 2020 Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force Report). HCYC’s Youth & Community Specialists offer mentorship and counseling to young people from a lived-experience perspective; they understand what these kids are going through (and what their particular needs may be) because they’ve actually been through it themselves. This community-based work is vital to harm prevention and improving outcomes for kids in foster care, especially those most susceptible to exploitation. 

It’s about empowering youth to commit to their own futures and creating environments conducive to staying on that well-lit path. That means giving these kids resources they’ll actually want to partake of, equipping locals with the necessary tools, and creating a community prepared to fight to keep their young people safe. In this way, we can work toward making the mean streets of Houston a better place to be.

How to Street Law

KIPP Northeast students at 5th Circuit Court of Appeals hearing at UH Law Center.

An opportunity to bring the knowledge and understanding awaits law students who would like to teach high-school aged children about the law. This opportunity is not a traditional law school course and allows for creativity from the street law students and the instructor. As an instructor you are paired with a local high school or juvenile facility within your county (at least for UH Law Center). You are not paired alone, there will be a teacher or classroom monitor you are paired with as well to aid with the teaching process.

The first time I worked for street law was at KIPP Northeast in fall 2019. At this institution I started with teaching High School students. The first day I might have been a little nervous due to being in law school and had the responsibility of teaching high school students about the law. I was in my 2nd year of law as a part-time student and knew just enough to supposedly make me “a little dangerous.” On that day I decided to establish rules with the classroom, but I thought we would bring in an introduction to how a democracy ideally works. This was a good moment for the students to participate in a voting process. The outcomes were decently accepted, and I figured the class as whole will work well together that year and that they did. At the end of that first day, I asked the students what they would like to learn and get out of the class, most of the students replied with “we want to learn loopholes.” While that made me smile, I knew this was going to be a great group of students. Throughout that first semester we touched on many topics, such as criminal law, family law, contracts, constitutional law, and many other legal topics that were current events.

The next semester, spring 2020, was the fun part as it was time to prepare for a mock trial competition. During the mock trial competition all the high schools and juvenile facilities that have street law instructors for UHLC have our students compete against one another. The mock trial itself can either be a civil or a criminal case and the students are assigned roles from the mock trial packet. Usually there is three to five lawyer roles for each side of the case and two to three witnesses for each side of the case as well. As a law student who never participated in a mock trial at that time, teaching this aspect was something new to me. Yet, I took on this responsibility and did the best to represent the school and the students as they showed plenty of talent. Getting the students to write and prepare for the mock trial was a challenge at first. The rigor and skill it took to read through the mock trial packet was bumpy at first. Once the students were able to understand what the case is about then the part of assigning students to roles was next. After assigning the student roles the class learned and drafted opening statements, directs, cross’s, and closing arguments and it was not as easy as it sounds. Yet, with plenty of support and visual aids the students were able to script out their entire mock trial and now they were just getting ready to perform. When the mock trial competition was two weeks away, I took the students to UHLC to view a hearing held by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. This extremely motivated the students to want to do the mock trial as they saw how it would be when their opportunity arises to advocate for their mock case. A week before the mock trial rounds were going to start the students were on spring break and that is when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country and the mock trial competition was canceled.

I did get another opportunity to teach that upcoming summer 2020 at a juvenile facility in Harris County. During this session I got to have a co-instructor who provided sound information to the students and gave an exciting aspect to the course. This time was quite fun and unique, during that summer the class was 100% virtual. Coming up with lesson plans and connecting with the students was a challenge that is easily overcome by practicing different strategies and figuring out what worked best. A huge benefit of doing the program that summer was every class period afterwards I would meet with the other fellow street law instructors who were teaching at the facility as well. We all discussed what has worked well for the virtual classroom setting and some things that can be done better. Ultimately the students were really engaged with visual aids, videos, and having discussions about the substance of law that was taught and how it may be applied to their lives. The students were able to display true advocacy for certain laws they like or believe should change. The experience gave me an opportunity to carry over everything I learned from the previous semester into the summer and I truly enjoyed the time I spent with the students.

The upcoming fall semester 2020 I got another opportunity to teach at a juvenile facility, but at a different location. The students in this facility came and went often and I never had the same group of students for longer than a month. This did not phase me as it gave me an opportunity to teach the new students the importance of learning the law at their age and the importance of advocating for oneself. This class was still 100% virtual, but there were a couple occasions where I was allowed to go in person. The students appreciated my presence in person and was able to spend some time asking about a higher education and law school. This was also the first semester that I taught with another street law instructor. The co-instructor for the class brought a different perspective than I did, and the students enjoyed both sides. We were able to partner together on the lesson plans and how we wanted to carry out the mock trial competition at the end of the semester. Due to having an always changing group of students, there were plenty of challenges. Yet, there were some rock star students who were able to carry on a bigger task load when it came to the competition date. The students did exceptionally well during the mock trial competition and showed great signs of being a future advocate for themselves.

The following semester, spring 2021, I got an opportunity to teach at a different juvenile facility than the first two. I was extremely excited for this opportunity as I have heard great things about the students here and their ability to grasp legal understanding of a mock trial at a high rate. Once I started with the students, I saw what I had been told right away. The students were extremely brilliant and had an inquisitive mindset towards street law. I think the difference between this school and the other is with the first two institutions I had to introduce the students to what is street law versus this time around the students already had a sound understanding of what the program was. The students were so prepared for the class I had to consistently come up with a different ways of teaching every class. The class was still 100% virtual and I did not get an opportunity to meet the students in person. Yet, the students enjoyed virtual games like crossword puzzles, jeopardy, and trivia games. At this point I was comfortable creating games using the law. I also became comfortable having students lead discussions and having other involved to either support or oppose the information that was being discussed by the student. The students enjoyed visual aids for learning such as videos and music just like the prior classes as well. Being a street law instructor was now becoming a second nature and I truly enjoy it. The students in this program also got the opportunity to participate in a mock trial competition at the end of their semester. The students performed exceptionally well in preparing for the mock trial. On the day of the mock trial the students had an incredible performance and showed a sound understanding of the law. This time around the competition was held virtually on zoom. The way the students performed was extremely well and I am proud of their performance.

I am glad to have had this opportunity at UHLC and look forward to how the street law program will grow in the future. I am glad to have met Professor Marrus, who introduced me to street law. Additionally, every single person that acquainted me in my role as a street law instructor, I thank you!