Legal Aid Alberta is improving access to justice for rural youth and teaching parents about the criminal justice system .
Is it normal teen acting out or is it something far more? Legal Aid Alberta is helping its network of lawyers provide better legal service to young people in trouble with the law—and a free virtual event for Albertans will help families understand what to do if bad behaviour turns criminal.
“If their children are in trouble and parents want to help, they need to understand the process,” said LAA youth criminal law expert Karen McGowan. “Some parents want the system to teach their child a lesson and some think their child can do no wrong and it’s just a misunderstanding,” she said. “Neither one is helping.”
McGowan, who has more than 20 years’ experience representing youth (aged 12 to 17) in criminal court, will share her knowledge and expertise in this specialized area of law in a free public webinar at noon on Feb. 24. Registration is open to the public.
McGowan will discuss risk factors for youth, outline parent and youth rights and supports available to them, and bust myths—such as the common belief that youth records cannot be used in adult criminal trials.
There are too many misconceptions about the youth criminal justice system, she says, starting with the stereotypes of young people who get in trouble with the law.
“Anyone’s child can come into conflict with the law,” she said. “A lot of people tend to treat teens as little adults when really, they’re big kids. They’re immature. They’re impulsive. They don’t always think of consequences. They need guidance and understanding so they can become responsible adults in the future.”
“You may have tried everything as a parent, but the youth criminal justice system is not a parenting tool. Once a charge is laid, your child’s fate is no longer in your hands.”
And it’s important that even parents hear this message before doing something rash—like calling the police on their own child. As disruptive and damaging as a child’s behaviour may be, calling the police isn’t always the right answer.
“You may have tried everything as a parent, but the youth criminal justice system is not a parenting tool,” she said. “Once a charge is laid, your child’s fate is no longer in your hands.”
Some parents think the only way they can help their child is through the courts. McGowan says there are other options. LAA provides legal services and can share resources from justice system partners to help young people with substance abuse, psychiatric help, or other issues.
“Legal Aid Alberta has lawyers with expertise to assist kids who do end up in the justice system and can also provide information about resources to prevent criminal activity.”
The first step for a teen in trouble with the law—or their parent—is to connect with Legal Aid Alberta.
LAA has staff lawyers and a network of about 1,200 roster lawyers across the province. McGowan recently delivered a professional development series on the youth criminal justice system to about 80 roster lawyers serving Alberta. LAA is establishing a panel of youth criminal law experts to improve access to justice for youth in every corner of the province.
“It’s a specialized area of law. We have superb lawyers but we have a responsibility to better equip them to represent youth in court—we are spreading the expertise across the province rather than have it concentrated in Edmonton and Calgary.”
About Legal Aid Alberta
Legal Aid Alberta is a not-for-profit organization that provides legal representation and support for Albertans facing legal issues.
LAA provides legal services to clients in support of fairness in Alberta’s justice system – services that help ensure Albertans in all circumstances can understand and defend their legal rights.