The Juvenile Court Project (JCP) was established in 1982. Prior to the establishment of the JCP, Neighborhood Legal Services provided legal representation for indigent parents in dependency hearings in Allegheny County. As a result of funding cuts in the 1980s, Neighborhood Legal Services was no longer able to provide these legal services. However, the NLS filed a class action lawsuit, Smith v. O'Bannon (civil action 82-13), to affirm the right to counsel for indigent parents in dependency proceedings. The lawsuit was withdrawn after the County agreed to provide the legal services and entered into a contract with the Allegheny County Bar Association for representation of indigent parents in dependency proceedings in Allegheny County.
The JCP began operating in 1982 out of a small office in the Juvenile Court building with two part-time independent contract attorneys. In its first year of operation, the JCP provided legal representation for 350 clients. In 1993, a consultant was retained through a grant form the Forbes Fund to assess the JCP and make recommendations on how to increase the JCP's ability to meet client needs. The recommendations included hiring attorneys on a full-time basis, adding secretarial support staff, finding funding for independent office space and office equipment, seeking independence from the Allegheny County Bar Association as a non-profit charitable organization, and establishing community awareness programs.
In 1998, with the enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act and the establishment of the Juvenile Court's Hearing Officer Program, the JCP replaced its part-time independent contract attorneys with full-time employee attorneys. The Adoption and Safe Families Act established restrictive timelines under which parents need to accomplish their goals to have their children returned to their care or face a goal change from reunification to some other permanency goal, which could include adoption. The Hearing Officer Program provided additional court officers authorized to sit for certain dependency proceedings in more courtrooms. Accordingly, the JCP attorneys were required to appear in those courtrooms on behalf of their clients. The JCP reorganization provided a means to ensure greater ability to meet client needs and proper accountability for the same.
Today, the JCP is one of the programs administered by the Allegheny County Bar Foundation, the subsidiary of the Allegheny County Bar Association. The JCP consists of full-time employee attorneys, support staff, and social work specialists referred to as parental support advocates. The JCP maintains its own fully-equipped, independent office space in downtown Pittsburgh. The JCP continues to provide legal representation in dependency proceedings in Allegheny County and has expanded its services to include legal representation in termination of parental rights hearings, as well as Childline appeals.
Additionally, the JCP conducts a law clinic weekly at the Allegheny County Jail.