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Protecting Children’s Legal Rights

Upon graduation in 2008, Hannah Benton ’08 went to work for the disadvantaged children of Connecticut. Awarded the Equal Justice America Fellowship, Benton took a job at the Center for Children’s Advocacy (CCA) in Hartford. With a passion to help youth avoid involvement in the juvenile justice system, Benton felt at home at the organization devoted to promoting and protecting the legal rights and interests of the most vulnerable children.

Benton focuses on two of CCA’s many projects: the Truancy Court Prevention Project (TCPP) and TeamChild Juvenile Justice Project. Through the TCPP, Benton provides civil legal services to youth at risk of juvenile justice involvement. Recognizing that truancy is a strong predictor of future delinquent actions, Benton seeks to address the problem at its root cause. The TeamChild Project works with children already involved in the juvenile justice system. Benton ensures access to special education and mental health services for these children in order to prevent future juvenile justice involvement.

Benton’s dedication to children’s rights is perhaps best illustrated by her recent administrative complaint victory. She explains, “In June 2009, I filed a class action administrative complaint with the State Department of Education against the Hartford Public Schools after witnessing the degrading and discriminatory conditions experienced by my clients at the Hartford Transitional Learning Academy at Hartford Magnet Middle School, an in-district self-contained special education program, designed for students with behavioral health disabilities.” Detailing a nonexistent educational curriculum, classrooms without teachers to instruct students, poor learning conditions, and isolation, Benton explained how she was not content to simply represent her own clients. Using an under-utilized procedure whereby an organization can file administrative complaints with the State Department of Education, Benton pressed the State for relief for all of the students in the program. The State agreed with her.

The State Department of Education found that the students “had been denied their legal rights to receive an educational program that was designed to produce educational benefit, the right to be educated in the least restrictive environment, the right to minimum school day requirements, and the right to an appropriate disciplinary system with procedural protections.” The State ordered Hartford to provide these students with compensatory education and to pay for the students’ families to have advocates present at the meetings to determine compensatory education. During the State’s investigation, the Hartford Public Schools shut down the program and established a new in-district special education program, which Benton continues to monitor.

Benton cites her work with Frank Dineen’s Legal Assistance Clinic and Brett Dignam’s Complex Federal Litigation Clinic as invaluable preparation to the work she is currently doing. With the skills she gained at YLS and the experience she is amassing at CCA, Benton has high hopes for the future. She is tracking other district-wide issues “involving the provision of special education and related services and evaluations to students who are mainstreamed.” Also, she is “looking for ways to systemically address the issue of disproportionate arrests of disabled youth.”

More information about CCA and Benton’s work can be found at www.kidscounsel.org.

Postscript: In January 2010 Benton and the CCA, along with Greater Hartford Legal Aid, filed a complaint against 255 Main, the facility that replaced the Hartford Transitional Learning Academy in 2009. In its investigation into the complaint, the State Department of Education concluded the new facility was “not disciplined, safe or conducive to learning,” and that the setting was “totally inappropriate for a therapeutic school.” In August 2010 city school officials concluded Hartford was not equipped to provide the proper services to the students, and planned to place the students in out-of-district settings that would meet their individual needs.