By Khesia Taylor
In the heart of Washington, DC, there is an organization that works fiercely for DC youth navigating the juvenile justice system. Open City Advocates (OCA), a DC Bar Foundation grantee partner, has worked since 2005 on behalf of DC’s youth, providing youth-centered legal defense and advocacy for young people after sentencing in the DC juvenile justice system.
When I spoke with Whitney Louchheim, chief operating officer at Open City Advocates, she illuminated many of the issues youth faced before OCA’s advocacy work. “Historically, once youth were sentenced to a youth delinquency system, they did not have a right to counsel during the time of supervision, and that period could go on for many years. There was no one to help them navigate that bureaucracy. There was no one to make sure they were not languishing in a group home or that they were getting connected to school or mental health services.” For almost 20 years, OCA has provided legal representation as well as holistic advocacy to DC’s youth. Whitney says, “no issue is too big or too small if our clients need something. It could be transportation or a phone, and we will ensure they get what they need to succeed.” These services help youth integrate into society and their families as easily and seamlessly as possible.
Using holistic approaches is at the core of OCA’s work. Therefore, it is no surprise that OCA continues to support youth even after they are no longer under the supervision of the government. Services include getting them connected to vocational training or assisting with housing. “This not only helps with their direct needs, but we find it also helps with prevention. Giving young people support allows them to succeed and helps prevent further involvement in the system by solving some of these root issues,” Whitney adds.
Beyond the direct attorney-client representation, Open City Advocates scored one of its biggest and most impactful wins in 2020 when the DC Court of Appeals ruled in favor of their impact litigation case. “Before this case, it was up to chance or luck whether a youth might have someone to help them, and most youths were not getting the help. Because of this case, no matter what, youth committed to the delinquency system have the right to counsel.” Whitney emphasizes that they have created sustainable processes to ensure that all youth—not just OCA clients—receive representation once they enter the system. “We worked with the DC Superior Court to set up a panel of court-appointed attorneys to specialize in this work. We then train and support these attorneys throughout their work, so more youth get this support.” The panel of attorneys who have signed up to represent juveniles is currently the largest since the panel's inception.
When I asked Whitney about other success stories, she shared one about a client held at a Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services facility. While at this youth facility, they experienced bullying, and the environment felt very unsafe. OCA’s staff attorney was able to advocate on the client's behalf and successfully got them released for safety reasons. “This may sound simple, but this rarely happens, so it was a big deal to communicate and advocate successfully for them to be released and safe.”
As Open City Advocates continues on this journey to help youth in the juvenile justice system, one of their top priorities in the new year is to hire a staff attorney to help meet the need for post-commitment representation. The DC Bar Foundation is proud to support OCA and its ongoing work to provide holistic services to youth in the justice system.