Last week the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP)released “Alone without a Home,” a report that focused on the legal rights of homeless youth concerning health care and social services.
According to the report, youth experience homelessness for numerous reasons and struggle with having their needs met; this is partly due to policies and procedure of state law. This is important because effective policies around health care and social services can help meet their human needs (i.e. food, water, sleep, health, etc.).
Statistics among the States
State laws vary in allowing homeless youth to receive health care, social and legal services (i.e. applying for health/federal benefits and writing up legal contracts) without parental consent. Here is a national snapshot of these laws:
22 states don’t require court involvement for receiving some social services
34 states allow minors to apply for health insurance without parental consent
47 states allow homeless youth to receive federal benefits (i.e. food stamps) without parental consent
28 states allow homeless youth to receive mental health treatment on their own accord
46 states allow homeless youth to be taken into police custody
36 states grant law enforcement power to return the homeless youth to their foster/home against their will
Where does California Stand?
California is 1 of only 10 states that include provisions to fund programs targeted to runaway and homeless youth.California authorizes few sources of funding for runaway and homeless youth programs and services, which include the Runaway Youth and Families in Crisis Project and the Youth Center and Youth Shelter Bond Act program. These programs allow multiple types of services to be directed to homeless youth such as food, shelter, health services, independent living/employment skills programs, and counseling, among others.
The Courts and Law Enforcement
Homeless youth can become “wards of the court”, which allows the court to order for the care, supervision, custody, conduct, maintenance, and support of the youth.
A police officer may find it reasonable to take a homeless youth into custody without a warrant, but must advise them of their rights. The youth can be held in shelters, non-secure facilities, or crisis resolution homes, but they can only be held in detention facilities in extenuating circumstances (i.e. warrants against the youth, if necessary to find guardians; and if reaching/awaiting guardians) for no more than 72 hours.
In order for a homeless youth to avoid barriers to accessing health care, social services, and/or legal help, becoming legally independent or “emancipated” may be needed. The fact that homeless youth (under the age of 18 in California) are “minors” means that they have limited legal rights; for example, they lack the legal status to live independently unless they become emancipated. Youth may become emancipated by choice or because there are no adults able and/or willing to support them. The two common obstacles that homeless youth encounter in becoming emancipated are (1) parental consent and (2) age limitations.
California permits minors as young as 14 years old to petition for emancipation, allowing them to enter into binding contracts if it is deemed to be in the youth’s best interest. Once granted, the emancipated minor is considered an adult and therefore allowed the same legal rights and consequences as adults. The youth or the guardian may appeal a decision regarding emancipation if they are not pleased with the court’s decision, so emancipation may be voided or rescinded.
NLCHP recommends that states assign responsibility for offering opportunities and supports for runaway and homeless youth, which California does, albeit in a limited capacity. The report sites Indiana as an example of effective emancipation statue in that they (1) do not allow youth to be returned to their foster/home against their will; and (2) do not require parental consent for emancipation efforts, nor do they have a minimum age requirement. Indiana statutes require the court to ensure that youth seeking emancipation understand the consequences of their decision. In addition, youth are required to show that they have acceptable safe living arrangements and that they can support themselves.
The report aims to promote the safety, health, dignity and worth of homeless youth, thus increasing their chances of a more positive future. The barriers that prevent homeless youth from having their needs met jeopardize their chances of re-establishing safe and stable homes. For more information about California law pertaining to child welfare please visit the CALIFORNIA WELFARE AND INSTITUTIONS CODE