National Center for Youth Law


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Meet the New Executive Director

Jesse Hahnel Head ShotOn August 1st, 2015 Jesse Hahnel became just the fifth director in the National Center for Youth Law’s 45 year history. Hahnel was selected after a nationwide search that produced many highly qualified candidates. He stood out especially for his extraordinary accomplishments on behalf of children in foster care. Hahnel succeeds John O’Toole who is retiring after 35 years at the NCYL.

“Jesse has the vision, skills, and most importantly, the passion to advance NCYL’s mission of serving children in need,” says Board President Peter Edelman, a nationally recognized expert on child poverty and law professor at Georgetown.  Edelman adds “He is exactly the right person to lead NCYL going forward.”

Hahnel, a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School, has been an attorney at NCYL for nearly seven years. Five years ago he founded FosterEd, an innovative, award winning, system-reform initiative of NCYL that improves educational outcomes of foster children. Hahnel is a recipient of the prestigious Skadden and Mind Trust fellowships.  He resides in Alameda with his wife, who is also in education reform, and his two young children.

As Founder and Director of FosterEd, Hahnel has demonstrated the leadership, vision, and managerial skills to direct NCYL. Under Hahnel, FosterEd has grown a strong and diverse staff of 35 people, developed a brand and national recognition, and has supported the educational success of more than 5,000 children to date with impressive results documented by external evaluators.  Futher, it has used these successes to improve the policies and systems impacting foster youth in multiple states. FosterEd is one of just a handful of exemplary initiatives recognized by the Center for the Study of Social Policy as helping foster youth thrive. The initiative currently operates in Indiana, California, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as at the federal level.

Hahnel describes his management philosophy as one of finding extraordinary advocates and doing his best to support them. He has sought to cultivate a culture of reflection, analysis, and improvement such that change is constant and embraced. He also seeks to create a supportive environment in recognition of the emotional demands that come with working to make a more just society for children.

Looking forward, Hahnel views the challenges ahead for NCYL as requiring work across systems and using diverse strategies: “Over 16 million U.S. children live in poverty.  An enormous number live in areas of concentrated poverty, are raised in broken homes, attend dysfunctional schools, have been funneled into a punitive and demonstrably failing juvenile justice system, or are under the care of a negligent child welfare system. These conditions and institutions are supported by a network of laws, regulations, institutional self-interest, bias, ignorance, fear, inertia, and disengagement. Changing conditions such that children and youth receive just opportunities is an enormous undertaking. It requires focusing simultaneously on multiple systems and their interrelatedness. It requires examining issues through multiple lenses. It requires campaigns built of multiple strategies, litigation included, strategically interwoven. It requires a children’s movement.”

Hahnel will build on the legacy of O’Toole, who has guided NCYL since 1981. Under O’Toole’s direction, NCYL survived the loss of federal funding from the Legal Services Corporation in 1995 to become a thriving, self-sustaining organization. During O’Toole’s tenure, NCYL became known for its successful impact litigation bringing significant reform to child welfare systems in Washington, Utah, Maryland and Arkansas, among many other victories, in and out of the courtroom.

Since O’Toole became its Director, NCYL has grown from a 11 having attorneys to 16 today, and a staff of 56, working in the areas of juvenile justice, adolescent health and mental health, child welfare and education, the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the over-medication of children in foster care, the education of children in foster care, and implicit bias in all the systems that affect children’s lives.

Hahnel is dedicated to preserving and building upon O’Toole’s legacy as he takes the helm in August.  “John has made an enormous difference in the lives of children, especially those who have no one else to stand up for them,” says Hahnel, “He’s been a tremendous influence on me and I am honored to carry on his work.”