Vulnerable Youth and the Law
Young people face many challenges as they prepare for and transition into adulthood. These challenges can easily transform into problems with the legal system. For marginalized youth, legal problems are compounded by other social problems. Some of the extra hurdles marginalized youth face include:
- unmet basic needs which take a greater priority;
- lack of a stable or adequate support network;
- transportation problems; and
- lack of respect from professionals. (Stewart et al. 2010)
There remain a number of barriers to solving the legal problems youth encounter. For one, youth are considerably more likely to not obtain legal advice and do nothing to solve a legal problem (Buck et al. 2007; Kenrick 2002). Young people are also the least likely to recognize they need advice and to know where to go for help (Kenrick 2002). The transition to adulthood is a tumultuous time for all youth, but marginalized youth face additional problems that make this transition even more precarious. PLE can play an important role in early intervention by catching youth before they fall through the cracks. When a young person decides to take action they often do not have basic knowledge of where to go for help (Public Legal Education Network 2009). As a result, youth often have a limited awareness and familiarity with their rights and the operation of the legal system.
Public legal education (PLE) organizations play a fundamental role in helping vulnerable youth populations. “Improving levels of legal capability through the provision of legal education,” attests Lisa Wintersteiger of the Public Legal Education Network, “not only means individuals are better equipped to cope with risks and challenges, but also to recognize and take advantage of the opportunities they encounter” (2008, p. 1). PLE serves as a tool of social empowerment to address the inequalities experienced by vulnerable youth.
Information Seeking Habits of Youth
It is not surprising given the wealth of information freely available online that the Internet is an important tool in youth problem-solving behaviour. The Internet is the most likely source of information on a range of subjects for youth. Youth are most likely to turn to the Internet for information on sensitive topics that they are not comfortable discussing with others, especially topics like drugs, sex and alcohol. One major challenge is that youth find it difficult to identify reliable and accurate information online. (Di Antonio 2011)
Youth generally seek advice from within their social network and “approach non-expert sources of help, often individuals, in preference to professional advice agencies” (Kenrick 2002). Non-expert sources of information include friends, parents, teachers, community members, and support workers.
There is considerable research that indicates that youth are not seeking advice from mainstream expert sources. Youth generally seek advice from within their social network and “approach non-expert sources of help, often individuals, in preference to professional advice agencies” (Kenrick 2002). Youth are more likely to use expert advice or services if they are:
- face-to-face; (Stewart et al. 2010)
- informal; (Kenrick 2002)
- holistic and address emotional and social problems; (Michael Bell Associates 2007)
- age-specific/appropriate; (Kenrick 2002; Michael Bell Associates 2007)
- honest and objective; and
- not contradictory to their own life experience (Mah 2011).
Many of these characteristics were seen to contribute to a relationship of trust, an important factor in a young person’s decision to get expert advice (Stewart et al. 2010). Youth may even test a mainstream expert source with a trivial or small inquiry before seeking help for complex and sensitive problems (Kenrick 2002).
Successful PLE Strategies for Vulnerable Youth
Organizations must adapt to and embrace the tools and social media platforms of the twenty-first century to which this generation of youth are most receptive. They must also take advantage of the support systems vulnerable youth use, because they can provide information to a greater number of individuals than PLE organizations alone.
Working with service providers that support vulnerable youth should be a focus in any approach to provide legal support to youth. Organizations must adapt to and embrace the tools and social media platforms of the twenty-first century to which this generation of youth are most receptive. Service providers have established relationships and are more likely to be a first point of contact for youth with legal problems than other expert sources. It is important that service providers have a basic understanding of the legal system and are capable of making appropriate referrals. PLE outreach to service providers can help to prevent situations where outreach workers with good intentions provide harmful information.
The transition to adulthood is a tumultuous time for all youth, but marginalized youth face additional problems that make this transition even more precarious. PLE can play an important role in early intervention by catching youth before they fall through the cracks. Youth tend to leave problems unattended until the consequences have become so dire they can no longer be ignored. An early intervention strategy is needed to fight back against this tendency through education and awareness. It is important that youth have access to accurate legal information where they will look for it. Legal information needs to be age-appropriate, available online, and in the hands of non-expert sources they trust.
This article has been adapted from a report published by the Centre for Public legal Education Alberta, Vulnerable Youth in Alberta and the Law: An Overview of Needs, Challenges and Supports Available (2013).