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Social media and legal pitfalls: Be careful what you put out there

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2013: Last Friday teens and those who work with teens in trouble got to interact with lawyers who gave them roadmaps for traversing potential legal problems. The day-long session has been developed to help connect resources and knowledge with the people who need them.

A few years ago, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri noticed that it was consistently getting queries from organizations that worked with young people. Parents, too, often sought legal help when their children made mistakes, as kids always have done and always will. Be it drugs, money, or just lack of simple direction; wrong choices can put young folks in a hole with no way out.

Legal Services responded by gathering information and presenting it to the groups that had called.

“Our first forum back in 2009 was in response to the fact that at the time we didn’t have an attorney providing legal services for teens,” said Jennifer Heggemann, director of social work services at LSEM. “We were always getting phone calls from service providers saying we’ve got this issue, that issue, we need help.”

“We had so many people that we had to draw up a waiting list,” said Heggemann. “Though the general consensus afterward was that, for this to truly work, we really need the kids to be here, to hear what we have to say.”

That first meeting had only providers, i.e., those who work with at-risk youth groups or the homeless, such Epworth, Youth in Need, family courts and children’s services.

The idea was to provide enough information so they could triage for themselves. “For example they could say ‘I remember that legal services did a presentation on rental issues now I’ve got this kid who’s facing eviction, what should I do?’” said Heggemann. “We have hopefully given them enough to get started with but in the long run they know they can come to us.”

Now Legal Services has a Homeless Adolescent Task Force, and its 2013 Youth Law Forum last week included teens. The one-day conference had sessions on such things as LGBT rights and resources, the court system, parental rights, borrowing and debt, renting a property and how to lead a safe, abusive free relationship.

Presenters were all experienced professional attorneys and advocates from Legal Services, Washington University School of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law, Arch City Defenders, Safe Connections, Growing American Youth and the Missouri attorney’s general office.

One of the workshops discussed the impact of social media and the legal ramifications it can have down the line if handled inappropriately. Presented by Kathryn Pierce, an attorney and lecturer at Washington University Law School, it provided valuable insight into online dangers.

“Prosecutors often go through youth’s social media to show how bad they are,” said Pierce, warning the audience about what is posted online. “If there’s any sign of drinking, drugs, gang signs, however ill representative it might be, it can be used against you in a case.”

She also suggested that teens should only accept friends they know to avoid exposing material to unwanted parties, ensure the account has tight security settings and not to post anything that has possible legal repercussions. Everyone, she said, should Google themselves to see what people can find out about them.

Pierce noted a survey that said “39 percent of employers, schools and hiring managers confirmed they hadn’t signed a candidate based on negative feedback received from their social media presence. The internet is forever, so be careful what you put out there.”

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