National Center for Youth Law


The National Center for Youth Law

has been at the forefront of establishing and protecting the rights of children in need since 1970. NCYL was founded to address the serious problems that poor children face in America. More than 16 million children live below the poverty line, and 7.4 million of those children live in extreme poverty. Childhood poverty is linked to many negative outcomes in life including less schooling, low wages, and poor health. These children desperately need our help.

Too many of these children end up being abused or neglected: there are about 500,000 children living in foster care. Many have unmet mental health needs that will plague them all their lives.  Others will leave foster care only to become homeless.  They are almost guaranteed to have trouble getting the education they need: less than half even graduate from high school.

Others may become enmeshed in the juvenile justice system, often for minor violations, putting yet another roadblock in their way. Children and teens who cannot access health care they need will also suffer.

NCYL was founded to use the law to improve the lives of these children. Low-income children deserve resources, opportunities, and support to succeed in life.

In the beginning…

NCYL was founded under the name Youth Law Center. It was originally an organization that did impact litigation on behalf of delinquent youth confined in horrible places. Early in its history the organization added the plight of children in foster care to its priorities. The Center participated in lawsuits that set basic standards of treatment for confined juveniles (Morales v. Turman) and which extended the constitutional ban on double jeopardy (Breed v. Jones) and the right to preliminary probable cause hearings (RWT v. Dalton) to juveniles. In the following years, the Center helped to end shocking and inhumane treatment of youth in detention centers in Oregon, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Arizona, and significantly reduced the number of adolescents confined in youth prisons.

The Youth Law Center merged with National Juvenile Law Center in St. Louis in 1978 and became the National Center for Youth Law. In 1982, the Board of Directors consolidated the two offices in San Francisco. From 1975 until 1996, the Center was funded by the federal Legal Services Corporation to assist neighborhood legal programs that offered free legal assistance to low-income people. Even as NCYL provided help to legal services programs to improve their efficiency and effectiveness, the Center continued to spend a significant portion of its resources on impact litigation. Because of changes in federal law, that funding ended in 1996 and NCYL was forced to rely on attorney’s fees in its litigation and support from foundations and individuals.

Meeting Children’s Needs


Over time, the focus of the Center’s activities has broadened to include ensuring that adolescents have access to the health care they need; mental health, and public benefits. Juvenile justice and foster care continue to be the two areas in which NCYL devotes most of its resources.

In a 1990 case before the U.S. Supreme Court NCYL won a victory in Sullivan v. Zebley on behalf of 450,000 children nationally who have chronic illnesses and disabilities, enabling their families to receive monthly income and medical insurance to meet their children’s special needs.

In 1994, NCYL preserved the right to choose for 30,000 teens when the California Supreme Court struck down a law that would have required teens seeking abortions to get their parents’ permission or a court order.

In one of its longest and most successful efforts, NCYL transformed Utah’s formerly dismal and financially-starved child welfare system into a system that is well-regarded and emulated by other states. When NCYL became involved in the 15-year effort in 1993, children were not safe and few found permanent homes or had the opportunity to thrive. Now, Utah has the smallest number of children in out-of-home care in the country. Children are being adopted instead of languishing in foster care for years, social worker caseloads have decreased dramatically, and children are getting the heath care they need. NCYL continues to monitor reforms in Utah.

Today NCYL has special projects that improve educational outcomes for children in foster care; address the needs of teens who are exploited by sex traffickers; and help navigate the pitfalls of sharing information among various youth-serving agencies when helpful, while preserving confidentiality when appropriate.

The Center continues to fulfill its commitment

happy kids

to providing services to attorneys and advocates who work on behalf of poor children. NCYL is one of the only legal advocacy organizations in the country that still engages in broad scale litigation. NCYL stands out from many organizations because its work has improved systems of care that serve hundreds of thousands of children. Our strategies include engaging in targeted litigation intended to precipitate broad change, improving policies that help children in need, and utilizing the media to make children’s needs a priority. We partner with other advocates across the country including the private bar, to strengthen our impact. Increasingly, NCYL works collaboratively with the youth-serving government agencies to improve the provision of services to children in need.

NCYL now has more than forty employees, including seventeen attorneys working on behalf of children in need nationwide.