National Center for Youth Law


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Message from the Director

Dear Friends,

d345d4e2dcThis issue of Youth Law News celebrates 40 years of the National Center for Youth Law’s leadership in child advocacy.  I am proud to be associated with NCYL and staff, Board members, and financial supporters who have contributed to its efforts to improve the lives of children in need.  Since 1971 NCYL has directly helped hundreds of thousands of poor children and teenagers, establishing and protecting their rights.

Over its history NCYL has had some spectacular successes benefitting large numbers of low-income children. In its early days, NCYL acquired a well-deserved reputation for effective advocacy in the courts.  In Morales v. Turman, for example, NCYL changed the face of juvenile justice by setting standards for safe and humane treatment of juveniles detained in institutions.  In Breed v. Jones NCYL won a United States Supreme Court decision that stopped the practice of trying a juvenile twice for the same offense: a practice which was already illegal for adults.  Another Supreme Court victory in Lau v. Nichols recognized, for the first time, the rights of non-English speaking students in public schools.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s our effective litigation continued.  We successfully represented children in major lawsuits that reformed juvenile detention facilities in Oklahoma, Idaho, and Arizona, ending shocking and abusive practices and substantially improving institutions that had treated children in a cruel and dehumanizing manner. In 1990, we worked with advocates nationwide to win Sullivan v. Zebley in the United States Supreme Court.  As a result, 450,000 disabled, poor children and their families began receiving monthly financial assistance and access to health care.

We started and continued to publish Youth Law News, providing a vehicle through which we can inform child advocates nationwide about each other’s activities and about the latest developments affecting poor children.  In July 2008, the publication went online and its circulation nearly tripled to more than 6,000.

I am pleased that in this current era of judicial conservatism and compelling client needs, our work continues to be so effective.  For each problem we address, we select approaches with the greatest likelihood of success.  We use combinations of strategies ranging from consultation and negotiation, to publishing and public information campaigns, to legislative advocacy and litigation.  In many situations, we help children by assisting the attorneys and other youth-serving professionals who work with them; in others, such as major litigation to achieve systemic change, we provide direct assistance to a class of children.  For example:

  • In 2008, we concluded David C. v. Huntsman, one of our longest and most successful cases ever. We transformed Utah’s dismal foster care system into one of the best foster care systems in the country–a system that is now a model for other states.
  • Last month, we settled Katie A. v. Bonta, in which we represent a statewide class of children in foster care or at risk of entering foster care who have unmet mental health needs. Over the next three years, we will fundamentally re-shape the way mental health services are provided to mentally ill children in California.
  • We persuaded Governor Schwarzenegger to grant clemency to Sara Kruzan who was serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for killing the pimp who had groomed her for prostitution when she was 11, turned her to the streets at age 13, and abused her until she killed him at age 16.  This campaign has significantly raised public awareness about the plight of commercially and sexually exploited minors, and the movement against life without the possibility of parole for juvenile crimes.
  • We spearheaded an editorial campaign by the San Francisco Chronicle to focus attention on the plight of children in foster care which led to the publication of more than 100 editorials, helped pass significant foster care reform legislation, and appropriated $100 million in new state money to improve California’s foster care system.

The key to our success is now and has always been our talented and experienced staff.  Over the past 30 years (and counting!), I have had the honor of working with the NCYL staff, who are responsible for all of these accomplishments and many more.  They are the best child advocates in the country—superb advocates who are among the best and most experienced poverty lawyers anywhere.  The average length of legal experience among NCYL’s permanent attorneys is nearly 17 years.  The people here have chosen to make this their life’s work, and they are distinguished not only by their abilities and dedication as lawyers, but by their willingness to sacrifice financially to do the work they love.

NCYL is thriving in many ways. We have 13 lawyers now, not including part-time volunteer lawyers. This is more than we have ever had. We are very successful in obtaining fellowships which enable us to bring in talented recent law school graduates whose salaries are paid by the fellowships. Since 1991, we have had 16 fellows at NCYL, all of whom contributed significantly to our work. We have also been quite successful in involving volunteer attorneys, deferred associates, and interns in our work. At any given time, we have multiple invaluable volunteers who contribute directly to the effectiveness of our work – undergraduates, law students, deferred associates working for a year before starting their law firm jobs, and retired attorneys with years of experience.  In 2010, the value of the work contributed by law firms, volunteers, and others totaled more than $3.2 million – all to enhance the Center’s capacity to fulfill its mission for children in need.

Our financial situation is always a challenge. But NCYL’s donors have stood by us and so have our key foundation supporters. In 2007, NCYL’s revenues were $1,377,922, but by 2009 they had risen to $2,037,995. We expect to raise about $2.2 million in 2011. We also maintain a reserve account to ensure the financial stability of the Center, so that if we raise less money than we need in a particular year we are not forced to lay people off. Instead, we dip into the reserves and then re-pay it in subsequent years, usually from an attorneys’ fee award. That we are in good shape now is not to underestimate the financial challenges we face. We have spent more money than we raised in three of the last four years. We have to raise approximately $180,000 every month in order to balance our budget in 2011. The relentless pressure to raise the money we need every year is responsible for most of the gray hair on my head.

While we are proud of our past accomplishments and confident of our ability to continue our effective work, we know that the challenges ahead are enormous. Local, state, and the federal governments have no money and looming budget cuts will inevitably make things harder for children in need. The political climate is ugly, and sympathy and support for vulnerable children ebbs and flows. At the core of the problem is the reality that poor children have such little power – they cannot vote, they do not contribute to political campaigns, they do not have lobbyists.  Often, they have no say in the many decisions that impact their lives.

This is why NCYL’s work is so important and why it will remain so: we are often the voice of children in getting their fair share of government resources, in getting agencies to meet their needs, and in making their protection a priority.  Whatever challenges we face, we know that our clients continue to need us, perhaps more than ever. Because of this, we are deeply committed to continuing to use the law on behalf of children in need.

Our substantive priorities have remained the same over the past 40 years, though the areas of emphasis may change depending on where there is the greatest need and potential to make an impact.  We have also come to realize that with the challenges we face come opportunities. With your support, we will continue to help the children in need who need our assistance.