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EXPERT AVAILABLE: Young People Need to Have a Right to Legal Counsel

September 12th, 2016

Story Contact: Sheena Rice, 573-882-8353,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Every day in America, hundreds of thousands of children involved in legal cases including child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency and immigration and deportation go without representation as a judge determines their fate. Clark Peters, associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri, says that while progress has been made in understanding the unique legal rights and needs of children in the judicial system, state and federal law still fails to provide adequate representation for children. On Sept. 12, 2016, Peters participated at a Congressional briefing on the legal rights of children in the court system, saying that young people have better outcomes when represented by their own attorneys.

“Children whose parents cannot safely care for them often come under the jurisdiction of juvenile court,” Peters said. “However, these children do not have a right to their own legal counsel to represent them, stripping them of their due process. Past research indicates that providing young people their own attorneys in court proceedings can improve outcomes.”

Currently 29 states require the appointment of some type of representation for all children—but this leaves room for improvement, especially as the representation provided is not always adequate, Peters says.

“In most cases, representation is through advocates, not attorneys,” Peters said. “Advocates, unlike attorneys, may not always represent the child’s expressed wishes.”

Peters was one of several experts who spoke to members of Congress during the briefing, which was sponsored by the American Bar Association, Children’s Advocacy Institute, First Focus and the National Association of Counsel for Children.

Peters’ research focuses on helping vulnerable young people – especially individuals experiencing state care – successfully transition to adulthood. He also examines child welfare services and judicial oversight of dependency and delinquency cases. Peters has a joint appointment in the Truman School of Public Affairs and a courtesy appointment in the MU School of Law. The School of Social Work is part of the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences.

Editor’s Note: The Congressional briefing coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Gault Supreme Court decision, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that ensured the right to a lawyer for children accused of crimes in juvenile court.