Legal options offered to teen parents

It is said that knowledge is power.

Gregory Meyers, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii Kaua’i office, is aiming to arm teen-age girls who are also parents with tools he said will help them strengthen their families.

Many of the girls he’s been assisting through the society’s Teen Parents & The Law project at all three of the island’s public high schools “aren’t aware of their legal rights,” whether the issues are custody, visitation, child support, paternity, budgeting, landlord-tenant agreements, child abuse, neglect, family violence, and other matters, he said.

His goal, and that of the program, is to make the teen mothers understand their legal rights, to “empower” them, and “make them understand that they can do something for their children and themselves, arming them with the tools to strengthen their family.”

The program, he added, is geared to help prevent child abuse and neglect, whether that child be the mother or offspring of the teen parent.

In 2003, the last full year of data available from state Department of Health officials, there were 107 births to teen mothers on Kaua’i.

Other statistics show that one in five teenage girls will become pregnant.

“It’s really a problem for them,” he said of teenage girls becoming mothers. “They weren’t planning on having a baby,” and had unprotected sex that led to their motherhood.

The program has been ongoing informally for a few years, and formally beginning with the current school year, and is scheduled to be expanded to Maui and the east side of the Big Island in the 2006-07 school year, then statewide, to include the Kona side of the Big Island, O’ahu, Moloka’i and Lana’i, in the 2007-08 school year, Meyers said.

While the program leaders have done a good job reaching teen parents who remain in school, partnerships are being forged to reach teen parents who have dropped out of school, he continued.

Through officials in the state Department of Human Services WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, who provide funds, education, information and services to needy families, Meyers and others hope to reach all the state’s teen mothers.

State Department of Health officials also have Malama Kaua’i, led by nurse Cathy Conradi, who works with teen moms and at-risk moms, he said.

Leaders of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii Teen Parents & The Law Project received funding from the Alexander & Baldwin Foundation and the Okumura Family Fund for the formalized program that sends attorneys into Kaua’i’s three public schools to work with teen moms.

Due to the early success, the Hawaii Children’s Trust Fund trustees have agreed to support the statewide expansion of the project, Meyers said.

“By teaching teenage parents about areas of the law typically missing from existing programs, by helping them develop resiliency skills, and by linking these young parents to supportive community resources, our project aims to prevent child abuse and neglect, and empower teenage parents with the legal knowledge necessary to provide a safe and healthy home for their family,” Meyers reiterated.

The project’s attorneys not only educate young parents about their rights and responsibilities, but also empower them to get answers to hard questions like: “Where do I go to get financial help for my baby girl?” “Is her father obligated to support her?” “How do I prove who her father is?” “Does it matter if his name is on the birth certificate?” “What is a temporary restraining order, and how can I protect my baby and myself from my abusive partner?”

“My parents are telling me I cannot leave the house with my child, but it’s my child; don’t I have rights?” “My baby was born four weeks premature, and Easter Seals says she may have long-term developmental problems, her father is not happy, he has shown his violent temper lately around the house, so what can I do to make sure she gets the nutrition and care she needs?”

These are all true examples of the questions asked and needs expressed by Hawai’i teen mothers.

The project attorneys are dedicated to providing ill-equipped teenage parents with the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate the maze of legal issues related to parental rights and responsibilities, custody, child support, abuse, neglect, domestic violence, discrimination, housing, education, health, public benefits, and consumer laws, he said.

With this project, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii attorneys remain committed to aiding low-income and at-risk youth in accessing justice throughout all of Hawai’i, Meyers added.

“We welcome support of volunteer probono attorneys who may be interested in teaching specific lessons,” he said.

For more information, contact Meyers, 245-4728, or by e-mail at grmeyer@lashaw.org.

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