Dalton Dyer v. CIF: A Major Victory for Foster Youth in California
By Bryn Martyna
The National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) won a major victory for the rights of California foster children this past November. Unlike many of NCYL’s cases, which can take years to resolve, NCYL both took the case and won it within just a week’s time.
NCYL represented Dalton Dyer, a 16-year-old foster youth who transferred high schools due to a change in his foster care placement. The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) — which governs interscholastic sports in the state — imposed eligibility requirements on Dalton that violated California law protecting the rights of foster youth. The CIF forced Dalton’s football team at Placer High School in Auburn to forfeit games it had already won, keeping them out of the playoffs. NCYL took the case to Alameda County Superior Court and a judge reinstated Dalton’s team’s wins, ruling that CIF bylaws violated state law and the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution.
Protecting Youths’ Educational Rights
NCYL took this case on because of the organization’s commitment to advocating for the educational rights of foster youth. Youth who are able to participate fully in extracurricular activities — including athletic teams — stay more connected to school and have better educational outcomes. This is particularly important for foster youth who transfer schools much more frequently than their peers and experience poor educational outcomes in general.
Dalton has been in foster care since birth. He spent most of his childhood in a foster home in Oakland. When his foster mother passed away, he was moved to Auburn, a community of about 15,000 in the California foothills, where he lived as a foster child with his aunt. After a year in Auburn, he was moved to a foster home in Vallejo. He spent 8th grade and his first two years of high school in Vallejo, and played on the football team at Bethel High. The summer after 10th grade Dalton was moved back to Auburn to live with his aunt and cousins — though he remains in foster care — for his final years of high school. He joined the football team at his new school, Placer High.
Placer’s athletic director treated Dalton as a transfer student moving with his or her immediate family in determining that Dalton was eligible to play on the team and did not have to submit special paperwork to the CIF. However, for transfer students who do not move with their “entire immediate family,” the school is required by the CIF to submit paperwork and request a hardship waiver in order for a student to play sports at his or her new school. Otherwise, the student must sit out a year. CIF bylaws are designed to prevent youth from transferring high school for athletic purposes, or due to recruiting pressure. In Dalton’s case, Placer’s athletic director treated him as he would any other youth moving with his family — he knew Dalton was in foster care and was, in effect, his own family.
CIF Says Dalton Ineligible to Play
The team had a good start to the season, and Dalton had a big game early on, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game. The Auburn Journal wrote a story about Dalton, mentioning that he was a foster youth transfer student, and noting that he was the only African-American on the team. Five games into the season, and after reading the Auburn Journal article, a coach from an opposing team questioned the CIF about Dalton’s eligibility. After some investigation, the CIF determined that Dalton was retroactively ineligible to play because Placer had not complied with procedures required of students who transfer without their “entire immediate families.” The school immediately complied with the CIF requirements and Dalton was granted eligibility for the rest of the season. However, the CIF issued an October 24 decision making the team forfeit games they had already won, which disqualified the team from the playoffs. The team had beaten its rival, Colfax High, a few weeks earlier in front of a crowd of thousands, and had not made it to the playoffs in eight years. Colfax was tapped to replace Placer in the playoffs, to begin November 21, 2008.
The case caught the attention of Art Woodward, a prominent Sacramento attorney and father of one of Dalton’s teammates. He volunteered to represent Dalton and Placer High in an appeal to the CIF. The appeal was heard by a three-person panel, which ruled on November 15 that the CIF was correct in forcing Placer High to forfeit the games due to the school’s failure to complete the necessary paperwork.
Meanwhile, Woodward had contacted NCYL to alert them to the appeal. He had been referred to Senior Attorney Leecia Welch who had given a training a few weeks earlier in Placer County on the educational rights of foster youth. When Woodward lost the appeal, he asked NCYL if they had interest in pursuing the issue at a higher level, and NCYL quickly began to explore possible approaches to the case.
NCYL Takes the Case
NCYL attorneys Bryn Martyna, Jesse Hahnel, and Patrick Gardner began devising a strategy in consultation with Woodward, Leecia Welch (who was in Utah completing a foster care reform case there) and Director John O’Toole, who was on vacation. The NCYL team knew they would have to act quickly if they were to address the immediate harm of Dalton’s team being barred from the playoffs, in addition to the injustice of CIF rules being applied to foster youth. The team introduced themselves to Dalton and his aunt and explained the options. Although Dalton is someone who shies away from the spotlight, he said he wanted to pursue the case and take a stand on behalf of all foster youth.
NCYL took the case because of its commitment to advocating for the educational rights of foster youth and to ensure that laws protecting those rights are enforced. NCYL filed a “Petition for Writ of Mandate” in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland against the CIF. They argued that CIF bylaws, which force foster youth to overcome barriers that would not exist if they were not in foster care, violate California law requiring that foster children be provided with immediate and equal access to all programs available to other students, and prohibiting rules or policies that create barriers to foster children participating in those programs.
NCYL filed the petition on Thursday, November 20. The following morning, the day the playoffs were scheduled to start, NCYL requested a temporary restraining order (TRO) to delay the playoffs until the court could decide whether the CIF’s decision was lawful. Along with the request for a TRO, NCYL filed multiple supporting declarations — statements from Dalton, his aunt, the principal of Placer High, the school district superintendent, and a foster youth liaison for the district. It typically takes weeks or even months to prepare these types of declarations, but in this case, they had to be produced in a single day. They also had to get from Auburn to Oakland in time to file Friday morning. The president of the Placer High booster club picked up all the signed declarations and drove to Richmond, meeting attorney Bryn Martyna in a Safeway parking lot close to midnight.
Remarkably, the superintendent of the district — which includes Colfax High, his alma mater, which was tapped to take Placer’s spot in the playoffs — stated in his declaration that the inconvenience of postponing the playoff game, and the disappointment felt by players and supporters of both schools, was outweighed by the need to have the deserving team go to the playoffs. He also noted that postponing the game would teach the players and students that fairness comes first — one of the most important lessons of athletics.
TRO Granted; Playoffs Delayed
NCYL went to court for the TRO hearing on Friday, November 21, armed with its declarations and briefs. Dalton, his aunt, Murlene Spinks, and his coach, Joey Montoya, drove from Auburn to Oakland for the hearing. The NCYL team of three attorneys, two interns, Director O’Toole and other supporters gathered in the hallway to await the hearing. The hearing took place with the attorneys for both sides and the judge’s research clerk in the hallway of the courthouse. The judge had reviewed all the papers and his research clerk relayed questions to the attorneys and reported answers back to the judge. After several rounds of questions and answers, the clerk handed each side a copy of the judge’s TRO granting Dalton’s request to delay the playoff game. In order to grant the TRO, the judge had to determine that Dalton was likely to win the case. The hearing on the case was scheduled for the following Monday, November 24, allowing time for the first playoff game to be rescheduled for that following Friday, November 28.
The group celebrated its first legal victory in the hallway of the courthouse, and Dalton and his coach headed back up to Auburn for a football team meeting; they knew that if they won in court on Monday, they could be required to play right away — against a team that had been able to practice for a week longer than they had. At this point, the media had picked up the story, and there was a significant amount of coverage over the weekend, including a piece in the Sacramento Bee. Reporters showed up to practice, and Dalton had his first of many media interviews.
Over the weekend, the NCYL litigation team worked more long hours, preparing the briefing due on Monday morning before the 1 p.m. hearing. On Sunday night the booster club president again had to pick up signed declarations from various people in Auburn and hand them off to Martyna in the Safeway parking lot. By Monday morning, media interest had grown, and a long story appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Dalton, accompanied by his cousin and coach Montoya, drove down for the Monday hearing. When Dalton looked on the Internet at the NCYL offices before the hearing, he saw that his story was among those featured on Yahoo’s national news home page and included a photo of him running the ball.
Television, radio and print journalists packed the courtroom for the 1 p.m. hearing. NCYL attorneys Welch and Martyna argued the case for Dalton, who sat in the front row of the courtroom with his coach. After about an hour of argument, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Judith Ford concluded the hearing, promising to make a final decision that day. An hour or so later, Judge Ford called the parties back to the courtroom and announced her decision: CIF bylaws violated state law, and Dalton’s team’s wins must be reinstated, putting them back in the playoffs.
Court Rules CIF Bylaws Unlawful
In a written decision entered the next day, the Judge explained that the bylaws violate the right of foster youth “to have fair and equal access to all available services, placement, care, treatment, and benefits.” She also found that the bylaws violate numerous provisions of the California Education Code as amended by AB 490. The main purpose of AB 490 is “to ensure that foster youth have the same access to educational and extracurricular opportunities as other pupils.” In addition, the Court held that the CIF’s bylaws, which treat foster youth differently than youth living with their immediate families, violate California’s Equal Protection Clause. The Court found that there was no rational reason for the CIF to subject foster youth to extra procedural requirements given that the bylaws’ purpose was to deter students from transferring schools for athletic reasons. This concern is irrational as applied to foster youth, the Court held, given that they can move only pursuant to a decision by a child welfare worker or juvenile court.
As Dalton left the courtroom, he was mobbed by reporters wanting his reaction to the Court’s decision. The story ran on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, which also published an editorial, and led the evening news on every local television station. The story in the Auburn Journal generated the most hits of any story in the paper’s history.
By the end of the day, Dalton learned that the playoff game had been rescheduled for that Friday, November 28. They were playing Oakdale High School, the defending division champions. The team practiced hard all week, with a renewed intensity and focus. Hundreds of community members from Auburn made the two-and-half-hour trek to Oakdale the day after Thanksgiving to support their team. Those members of the school band and cheerleading squad who could make it also organized themselves to go to the game. That night, Placer upset the heavily favored defending champions 27-14. On Dalton’s first run, he carried the ball 27 yards. The celebration after the game was the stuff of movies. In keeping with team tradition, Placer fans were invited to join the post-game huddle.
Dalton’s Team Goes to the Championships
The team went on to beat Dixon High School in the semi-finals of their division the following Friday, another amazing upset. Almost 2,000 Placer fans filled the south sideline at Dixon’s stadium. This put them in the championship game of their division for the first time in 27 years. The last time the team made it to the championships, in 1981, the team was coached by Bill Miller, the grandfather of current coach Joey Montoya. Members of the 1981 team flew in for the game. Placer fans outnumbered those for the opposing team — the Whitney High Wildcats from Rocklin, CA. The Cinderella story finally ended with a loss in the finals against unbeaten Whitney. But, no one would argue that the team made history, in many ways.
On a broader level, the effects of this case will be felt throughout California, as foster youth athletes are afforded fair and equal treatment by the CIF. For many foster youth, a sports team can provide an important social community in an otherwise unfamiliar school. Interscholastic athletics can also provide an incentive to continue succeeding in school. In standing up for his rights, Dalton ensured thousands of foster youth have equal and fair access to these opportunities.
Bryn Martyna is a staff attorney at NCYL, specializing in foster care and child welfare reform. She was co-counsel in the Dyer case.