Fiza Quraishi recalls being an “inexperienced 22-year-old” Barnard College graduate when she started working at the Vera Institute of Justice in the fall of 2000. While she knew she wanted to help young adults and children, she wasn’t sure just how and did not have much experience in juvenile justice. Twelve years later, Quraishi is
a staff attorney for the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) in Oakland, California, working on behalf of those in California’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
She credits her experience at Vera for launching her career. “My passion for kids in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems” really started during my time
at Vera,” she says. “I realized I wanted to work with youth who had been failed by the broken systems that were supposed to protect them, and I decided to use research and the law to help.”
Quraishi joined Vera as a member of the Project Confirm demonstration project led by Molly Armstrong. This initiative focused on ensuring communication between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems to reduce the number of foster youth who found themselves unnecessarily placed in detention for low-level offenses that would not usually lead to detention for children with parents or guardians. As a project team member, Quraishi saw how bureaucratic stasis and
a lack of information-sharing between agencies can impede the systems people rely on for security and justice, often with the most vulnerable as the unintended victims.
“My time at Vera made it clear to me that knowing the law, how to navigate systems, understand rights, and [how to] think like a lawyer can be really helpful when advocating for policy change,” she says. Quraishi did not begin her young adulthood with a burning desire to obtain a JD. But while working at Vera, she decided to enter law school with a goal in mind: “I went [to law school] knowing I wanted to be a child advocate.”
In the years after she left Vera, Quraishi pursued her commitment to youth justice in a variety of settings. Before landing in California, she directed Brooklyn’s Red Hook Youth Court delinquency prevention program and went on to attend University of Michigan Law School. During her time in law school, Quraishi spent one summer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and another as a clerk focusing on child welfare litigation for NCYL. In 2007, she received the University of Michigan Law School’s Jane L. Mixer Memorial Award for promoting social justice in the law and, upon graduating, was awarded an Equal Justice Works Fellowship with the NCYL.
Under the fellowship, Quraishi worked on improving access to mental health services for youth in foster care and juvenile justice systems and on three class-action lawsuits concerning the way foster youth gain access
to individualized home-based services. She also filed a writ in California that resulted in changes to the state’s policy on public assistance for relatives of former foster youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Currently, Quraishi is working to reform the delivery of mental health services for youth involved in both the foster and juvenile justice systems and is also seeking to improve data collection and sharing among youth-involved state agencies.
This article originally appeared in Just ‘Cause, the quarterly newsletter of the Vera Institute of Justice. www.vera.org