Cuts to Legal Aid Would Be Catastrophic for Children

When President Donald Trump proposed in mid-March to end Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funding, he was not thinking about 5-year-old Aaron.

A painful bout of wheezing caused by asthma brought the boy and his parents to a doctor. His pediatrician told his parents that toxic mold in their bathroom worsened his asthma and referred them to a legal aid attorney, whose services were funded by LSC.

The attorney compelled their landlord to remedy the unsafe conditions in their home, and now Aaron can take a bath and brush his teeth without worrying about his health.

Children are the hidden beneficiaries of legal aid services. Although children represent only 2 percent of the total clients of legal aid organizations, they constitute 42 percent of the people in the households served by these organizations.

Nisha Kashyap

By representing their parents or caregivers, legal aid attorneys funded by LSC assist nearly 800,000 low-income children across the country every year. Put differently, LSC — a program that comprises less than 1 percent of the federal budget — annually improves the lives of 12 percent of children living in extreme poverty.

LSC accomplishes this remarkable feat in a number of ways. Nearly one-third of all legal aid cases are family law cases, including restraining orders, child support petitions and adoptions. This advocacy is particularly important and, at times, life-saving for the 15 percent of clients whose families are affected by domestic violence.

Legal aid services play a critical role in helping these families find safety and independence. A mother fleeing a violent partner can secure a protective order to shield her children from further violence. A grandfather caring for his traumatized granddaughters can obtain the right to authorize therapeutic medical care for them. Through legal representation, victim’s advocacy, and community services, legal aid attorneys safeguard the health, welfare, and futures of low-income children who have endured domestic violence.

Legal aid services also combat another leading cause of childhood trauma: homelessness. One-quarter of legal aid cases are housing cases, which help low-income tenants and homeowners maintain their housing and ensure that rental units meet mandated health and safety standards. For these families, going to court is often their only remaining option, so a legal aid attorney can mean the difference between stable housing and homelessness.

The damage to children caused by substandard housing or homelessness is clear. Apart from the obvious dangers of living with mold or exposed wiring, or living in a car, children who experience housing instability suffer in school, too. Children are forced to change schools with each eviction, missing classes, losing credits, repeating grades and eventually dropping out. For these children, housing stability is a necessary first step to educational success. By contesting unlawful evictions and enforcing families’ rights to live in a habitable home, legal aid attorneys give thousands of low-income children a fighting chance at brighter future.

Finally, a small but meaningful number of children are the direct recipients of legal aid services. Attorneys represent children whose legal rights have been violated and help them secure access to basic necessities, such as healthcare and education. This assistance is especially profound for children in foster care and children with disabilities, populations that have additional rights designed to address their special circumstances.

Too often, these rights are unenforced, resulting in devastating consequences that impact children for years to come. Foster youth who are denied governmental support are more likely to become homeless, unemployed and incarcerated, and less likely to graduate from high school or college. Similarly, students with disabilities who do not receive appropriate services and accommodations struggle to learn the academic skills necessary for college or the workforce.

Consider, for example, the contrast between two cases. In one, a 12th grade student suffers from undiagnosed disabilities for years without access to legally required education services. Now, she will graduate from high school while reading at a third-grade level. In the other, a first grader’s physician refers her to a legal services provider because the child is struggling in school. The child’s attorney advocates for additional services and, within months, the child’s achievement and behavior start to improve. These cases are a testament to the fact that legal aid services can change the trajectory of a child’s life.

Despite the clear value of legal aid services, the Trump administration has proposed to end funding for these services – a cut that will have a catastrophic effect on young lives.

Continued LSC funding is a necessary investment in the futures of low-income children. Legal aid services mitigate the trauma of poverty on young minds and bodies by enforcing the rights of low-income children and families to safe housing, healthcare, and education. If we hope to see the next generation of low-income children thrive, we must oppose this senseless proposal and preserve LSC funding.

Nisha Kashyap, a graduate of the Stanford Law School, represents current and former foster youth in Los Angeles County. She was a 2015 recipient of the Skadden Fellowship.

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