Sometimes what a teenager needs the most is a lawyer.

Legal Aid of Manasota offers up just one nightmare scenario in which that would be the case: a youth who ages out of the foster care system and discovers his or her credit has been ruined because of identity theft by a relative.

“We’ve experienced some parents who, out of their own dysfunctional upbringing, have used their children to get ahead and ruined their credit by doing it,” said Erin Minor, executive director of Harvest House, which assists people who have problems finding housing. “So, when kids enter the system they can have a multitude of legal issues.”

LAM’s new Legal Lifeline for Youth program was created to help youths ages 14 and up who encounter such problems, and many others.

“The stories of these children are heartbreaking,” said Teri A Hansen, president and CEO of the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, which is providing a grant to fund the program. “This program ensures children are not punished for the bad choices their parents and others made.”

A management report from the Safe Children Coalition shows that in December it served about 1,600 children in foster care in the 12th Judicial Circuit, comprising Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.

More than 400 of them were in Sarasota County.

Thanks to a law County Commissioner Nancy Detert got passed when she was a state senator, youths in the foster care system can opt to stay in until they turn 21. Otherwise, they age out at 18.

The foster care system is intended to provide temporary living arrangements for children removed from their home for a variety of reasons, with the goal of reuniting the family when conditions permit.

The circuit’s guardian ad litem programs provide advocates and attorneys as children go through court proceedings related to foster care. Legal Lifeline for Youth would supplement that assistance and provide it in other areas.

“This program will be life-saving in many regards,” LAM Executive Director Linda Harradine said in a news release. “Each child will receive a Legal Health Check-Up to address unmet legal needs such as accessing medical and educational benefits, obtaining important records and mitigating fraud.

“Furthermore, by our representing children in foster care, or aging out of the system, we will be providing a legal safety net, preventing homelessness and ensuring financial stability.”

LAM will use a three-year, $540,000 grant from the Foundation to devote two full-time attorneys to representing children in dependency proceedings and expand partnerships with the Guardian Ad Litem program, Harvest House, the Sarasota County Bar Association and other organizations.

LAM hopes Legal Lifeline for Youth will be a model for a statewide program.

The agency provides free legal services to income-qualified people who live in Sarasota County or Manatee County or who have a legal problem there. Clients may incur costs they have to pay, depending on the service rendered.

LAM has an office at 749 Shamrock Blvd., Venice. It’s open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call 941-492-4631. LAM’s legal hotline is 800-625-2257. Those in need can apply for assistance at: LegalAidOfManasota.org.

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