National Center for Youth Law


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NCYL Celebrates 40 Years: 40 Years of Child Advocacy

31c6a9ce2aFor 40 years, the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) has worked to protect the most vulnerable children in our society. The Center is committed to furthering social justice by representing the rights of children who often have no voice in the political process or legal system. The primary way NCYL does this is by ensuring that public systems, like foster care, juvenile justice, and healthcare, are doing their jobs effectively.

The Center engages in targeted litigation and legislative reform, and consistently works with the media to make children’s needs a priority. NCYL partners with other advocates across the country to strengthen its impact.

While summaries of NCYL’s most significant litigation, legislation, and initiatives are listed in the Center’s “Greatest Hits,” the following provides a more detailed overview of our work, focusing on particular cases, laws, and projects that we believe exemplify our advocacy since 1971.

Child Welfare/Foster Care Reform

Three million children are reported abused or neglected in the US each year.  Many more instances of abuse are not reported.  Most victims of child abuse and neglect are not removed from their homes.  Even so, there are more than 500,000 children in foster care nationwide.  Victims of child abuse and neglect and children in foster care depend on public agencies and local communities to protect them.  Each year, state and federal governments spend billions of dollars on systems intended to protect children.  Tragically, many fail to meet their responsibility.

NCYL uses litigation (and the implicit threat of litigation) as a key strategy in our child welfare reform work.  NCYL remains one of just a handful of organizations nationwide that has successfully litigated lawsuits of broad impact, in multiple jurisdictions.  Our reputation leads others to consult and collaborate with us and provides the opportunity to influence the development of the law across the country.

David C. v. Huntsman

David C. entered foster care when he was just three years old and, within nine months, saw his brother beaten to death by a foster parent. Another named plaintiff in the case, 15-year-old Dora D., was physically and sexually abused by her father and placed in foster care at age 12. She subsequently experienced more than 10 placements. Her life in the custody of Utah’s Department of family services turned out to be a sentence to further abuse, and she was sexually assaulted by several more individuals, including a foster father.

NCYL filed a class action lawsuit in 1993 that sought broad child welfare system reform. While it was one of NCYL’s longest cases, taking 15 years to resolve, it has so far had the most impressive results. The case has transformed Utah’s child welfare system from one of the most dismal, financially starved systems in the country to one of the best. Data show that the state is investigating abuse and neglect reports more rapidly; caseworkers are visiting children monthly; foster children are receiving timely and appropriate health care services; all children in the foster care system are represented by attorneys, and children are moving more quickly to adoption instead of languishing for years in foster care.  In addition, comprehensive policies are in place; a state-of-the-art data management system drives decision making; and caseworkers are better trained and supported.  Child welfare experts, researchers, foundations, and administrators from states across the US have studied Utah to learn how it achieved its success.  More than 10,000 children benefit from NCYL’s Utah work each year.

In the time since the suit was filed in 1993 until it ended in 2008, the child welfare budget has tripled, from $50 million to $151 million in 2008. (If adjusted for inflation, the $50 million is equal to about $70 million today, so the real amount spent on foster care has more than doubled.)

Many of Utah’s government and child welfare officials initially attempted to minimize the extent of the problem and even to deny that a significant system-wide problem existed. Our litigation, however, spurred intense scrutiny of Utah’s child welfare system, resulting in equally intense public pressure for reform. While a settlement was reached within a year, with the defendants agreeing to all the reforms NCYL was seeking, it took more than a decade of constant vigilance by NCYL, who repeatedly returned to Court to enforce the settlement, for Utah officials to ultimately comply.

Braam v. State of Washington

Through Braam, NCYL has improved the lives of thousands of Washington’s foster children who suffered severe harm from being repeatedly moved from one foster home to another.  As the result of NCYL’s efforts, the state has made measurable improvements in many key areas addressed by the lawsuit, including placement stability, access to mental health care, and more support and training of foster parents.

The case, filed in 1998, was settled in 2004 after the Washington State Supreme Court held that foster children had significant constitutional rights that could not be disregarded, even if there was a lack of funding for key programs, as argued by the defendants. It was initiated by local Bellingham attorney Tim Farris who was seeking damages for individual plaintiffs, some of whom had been in more than 30 different placements while in foster care. NYCL joined as co-counsel to help seek class certification and obtain system-wide relief.

In addition to placement stability, the settlement agreement focuses on five other areas:

  • Mental health services
  • Foster parent training and support
  • Unsafe or inappropriate placements
  • Separation of siblings when placed in out-of-home care
  • Services for adolescents

Under the agreement, a unique multi-disciplinary panel was created to monitor the state’s progress and to evaluate and assist the Children’s Administration in implementing the settlement agreement. The Panel members included a former administrator of child welfare and related services programs, a law professor known for her work on racial disproportionality in child welfare systems, a social science researcher, a mental health systems expert, and a retired Washington state senator.  All the Panel members, except the Senator, were from outside Washington.

Progress was slow during the first few years, when the Assistant Secretary of the Children’s Administration changed several times. However, during the past two years, substantial progress has been made in key areas, while other areas need improvement.

The settlement agreement, set to expire on July 31, 2011, has been extended to Oct. 31, 2011.

Foster Youth Education

For the past six years, NCYL has developed model programs to help ensure that all foster children have a caring adult supporting their educational success.  We also advocate for, and help implement, policy changes that increase foster children’s educational stability and opportunities.

The academic problems plaguing foster children are tragic and well documented.  On virtually every measure, foster children fall far behind the general population⎯they are more likely to perform below grade level, more likely to have behavioral problems, more likely to need special education services, more likely to be held back a grade, more likely to drop out, and less likely to move on to college even if they earn a high school diploma.

NCYL was chief author and co-sponsor of important California child welfare legislation, Assembly Bill 490, designed to improve stability and eliminate many of the barriers to equal educational opportunity for foster children.  NCYL has played a key role in implementing AB 490, preparing materials and doing trainings on the law, representing individual students whose AB 490 rights have been violated, and working to expand the law’s reach through new legislation and school board policies.

Based on AB 490, we won a highly publicized victory for California foster youth in 2008, securing fair and equal treatment of foster youth who participate in extracurricular activities.  The case, Dyer v. California Interscholastic Federation, centered on Dalton Dyer, who has been in foster care since birth, and played football in high school.  Football helped him stay more connected to school, make new friends, and have better educational outcomes.  Dalton’s team faced disqualification from the football playoffs because of paperwork requirements that were imposed on him when his foster care placement changed.  A child moving with his parents would have been immediately and automatically eligible to play.  NCYL stepped up for Dalton and won a court victory that reinstated his team to its rightful place in the playoffs.  The decision affirmed the rights of children in foster care to have fair and equal access to all programs available to other students.  The CIF was forced to change its bylaws so that what happened to Dalton will never happen to another child in foster care.

NCYL also recruits, trains, and supports educational representatives for foster children in Alameda County, CA.  Educational representatives are appointed by the juvenile court to ensure that a foster child’s educational needs are met when the child’s parent or guardian is unavailable to play this role.  Additionally, we provide county-specific resources and expertise on education issues through our new online community, Foster Ed Connect.

Finally, FosterEd is a new initiative of NCYL to improve the educational outcomes of children in foster care.  FosterEd has successfully launched in Indiana in collaboration with Indiana’s Departments of Child Services and Education, and the State Office of CASA/GAL, and will soon launch in California.  We are accomplishing our goals through three complementary strategies: 1) ensuring every foster child has an educational champion 2) creating a network of foster youth education liaisons to provide resources, training, and technical assistance to local stakeholders, particularly educational champions, and 3) improving inter-agency collaboration, especially in the area of data-sharing.

Senate Bill 39

NCYL helped write, and co-sponsored, California Senate Bill 39, which mandates public access to key information about deaths from child abuse and neglect. For many years, crucial facts about the deaths of children from abuse and neglect have been kept secret from legislators, county supervisors, the press, and public. Very little has been revealed about the investigations done and actions taken by child welfare agencies in response to reports that a child may be in serious danger. California Senate Bill 39, passed in 2007, made this kind of information available to the public for the first time.

SB 39 requires the release certain records about each child who dies from abuse, including the circumstances of the death, the child’s age and gender, and whether the child was in foster care or living with parents. The most important information must be disclosed is any prior reports and investigations before the child’s death, the dates of those reports and whether or not they were substantiated by the agency doing the investigation.

Since SB 39 took effect in January 2008, NCYL has requested child death data from 20 counties, including Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Siskiyou, Tulare, Ventura. Those counties’ child welfare agencies have jurisdiction over more than 80 percent of California’s child population.

Some counties promptly produced the requested records, but others have withheld documents, employing a variety of tactics and excuses. The most common problem has been excessive redaction. Some counties have withheld entire files. Los Angeles County, for example, refused to share any child death data for an entire year – from November 2009 to October 2010.

Despite the challenges, the law has had some success, as the California Legislature intended, in “maximiz[ing] public access” and “promot[ing] public scrutiny and an informed debate” in child abuse and neglect cases. Since the law was enacted, the Los Angeles Times, relying in part on data released in response to SB 39 requests, has published many stories about deaths from child abuse and neglect in Los Angeles County. After the Times had problems obtaining legally required documents from the county’s child welfare agency, the county Board of Supervisors replaced the agency’s director and removed the agency from the control of the county’s chief executive. Instead, the agency was placed under the direct control of the Board of Supervisors.

In an unconventional and innovative approach, the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board launched a foster care reform campaign in September 2005. While its principal goal was new legislation, the impact of the campaign has been much broader.
From the beginning, NCYL played a key role in the campaign, initiating meetings with the Chronicle’s editorial board and serving as a principal resource by providing information, contacts, and analysis.  The Chronicle has published well over 100 editorials and articles on foster care, helping to achieve passage of 25 new child welfare reform bills and the budgeting of $100 million in new money.
Some of the major reform bills are:

  • SB 39 – mandates public access to the files of children who have died of abuse or neglect
  • AB 2216 – created a high-level statewide Child Welfare Council and provides increased coordination among the main agencies now providing services to children.
  • AB 1633 – gives foster youth maximum assistance from Social Security and supplemental security income benefits, and also extends benefits to up to age 19 for foster youth seeking a high school equivalency certificate.
  • AB 2480 – ensures legal representation for children in dependency proceedings at the appellate level
  • SB 2488 – eliminates legal obstacles to foster children locating their siblings
  • AB 2195 – facilitates expedient and safe placements of foster youth with relatives
  • SB 1667 – promotes foster parent participation in dependency hearings

In November 2005, Assemblywoman and now Majority Leader Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) established a Select Committee on Foster Care that has held hearings throughout the state. In 2006, the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Ronald George, formed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Foster Care. Former Congressman and California Senator John Burton recently established the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, which seeks broad reform of the foster care system with a focus on housing and support for foster youth leaving care.

While certainly all the credit does not go to the Chronicle campaign, it is impossible to deny the critical role it played in spotlighting the issue and helping to create a public awareness and political urgency that is unprecedented. While coverage is less frequent, the campaign is still ongoing, and continues to serve as an important example of the power of the media to affect change.

Juvenile Justice

NCYL has addressed a wide range of issues in its juvenile justice work over the past 40 years, from improving conditions of confinement to ensuring fairness and due process in juvenile court proceedings. But the Center’s main focus has always been on getting and/or keeping juveniles out of institutions whenever possible and appropriate, and promoting community based services as a means of rehabilitation and support.

NCYL’s juvenile justice work focuses on reducing society’s overreliance on incarceration, as well as eliminating overly harsh sentencing, particularly sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles.  We promote reform efforts that keep youth out of the juvenile justice system altogether and create alternative services that allow them to stay in or close to their homes and communities. With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world; it locks up more of its youth than any other country.

During NCYL’s early years, it used litigation as its principle tool of reform. NCYL filed a series of important cases to get kids out of juvenile prisons and to improve conditions at those prisons, including the provision of services to support youths’ rehabilitation. In Arizona’s Johnson v. Upchurch, for example, NCYL won a consent decree substantially reducing the number of juveniles who were confined to institutions and diverting them to expanded community based programs.

Morales v. Turman, filed in 1974, led to the complete overhaul of all six Texas Youth Council juvenile institutions. Staff routinely used handcuffs and mace, and often kept youths in solitary confinement for weeks at a time.  At the Gatesville facility, newly admitted youth were forced to run a gauntlet where they were beaten by other youths and staff. Finally concluded in 1984, Morales inspired a series of cases in which NCYL successfully challenged conditions of confinement in juvenile training schools, detention centers, and jails in a dozen states, including Oregon, Oklahoma, and Idaho.

NCYL has since shifted its work away from litigation and toward collaboration with the state officials and agencies that run juvenile justice systems.

The Juvenile Justice Reform Project

NCYL is working in Arkansas, Wyoming, Texas, and California to keep youth out of juvenile prisons and develop community based services. NCYL’s juvenile justice work is guided by the core principle that placing youth in large, secure institutions harms rather than helps them.

In Arkansas, the Governor, Legislature, and the Division of Youth Services (DYS) have acknowledged that the state incarcerates too many children and needs to create alternatives.  As a result of NCYL’s reform efforts there, 100 fewer youth were committed to secure confinement this year than last year.  Over the past three years, commitments have decreased by 15 percent.

In collaboration with NCYL, the state has adopted a strategic plan to achieve reform and is implementing that plan with NCYL’s help.

In Texas, we are working with local advocates and agency leaders to restructure the state’s juvenile justice system, which has been in crisis since 2007, when sex scandals in the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) were exposed.  We have enlisted the support of the US Department of Justice to address harmful conditions of confinement in 10 secure lockdown facilities operated by the TYC – conditions that violate youths’ Constitutional rights and jeopardize their rehabilitation. NCYL’s ultimate goal is to have several of those facilities closed. NCYL issued a report last spring on the mental health needs of incarcerated youth in Texas, making the case that appropriate and effective community based mental health services are vital to addressing the underlying reasons for many youths’ offenses, thus reducing recidivism, and preventing deeper involvement with juvenile and criminal justice systems. The report makes policy recommendations as well as features strategies for community level intervention now being implemented in Texas and other jurisdictions.

In Wyoming, we have focused on exposing and challenging the prosecution of children in adult courts for minor and status offenses (such as truancy or running away) through potential litigation.  We have also drafted a model juvenile code with key reformers in the state to have a comprehensive and common vision of what a reformed system should look like.  In both Arkansas and Texas, we have begun working in targeted districts to reduce the school to prison pipeline.

NCYL has also been working with Human Rights Watch to ban life without parole sentences for juveniles. The Center currently represents two people who received life without parole sentences for crimes committed while they were young teenagers.  We recently won clemency for Sara Kruzan, who was 16 when she was sentenced to die in prison for the murder of a 36-year-old man who had abused her from age 11 and forced her into prostitution.  Through our legal representation, media outreach, and organizing, Sara has become a compelling example of the need to review JLWOP sentences. NCYL and Human Rights Watch arranged for a 2007 video interview with Sara in prison that has since been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people and has generated a tremendous outpouring of sympathy and support for her case and the broader issue, in California and across the country. We filed a clemency petition on her behalf which was granted on the last day of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term.  Sara’s sentence was reduced to 25 years to life, and she will be eligible for release in about three years.

NCYL also represents Adolfo Davis, who was sentenced to life without parole in Illinois after he was found guilty as an accomplice in a robbery-turned-murder. He was 14 at the time of his crime.

NCYL is co-sponsoring SB 9, a California bill to provide for review of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences, and is working with a statewide coalition that includes advocates, faith leaders, law enforcement, victims, youth, and families.  The campaign is challenging JLWOP through legislative outreach, media, educational awareness, and coalition building.

Mental Health Care

There is a widespread need for mental health care for abused, neglected, and at-risk youth to help them stay at home, in school, out of the juvenile justice system, and on the path to independence.  Far too many youth are institutionalized – whether in juvenile halls or psychiatric hospitals – because of a lack of community based services and supports tailored to an individual child and based on that child and her family’s strengths.  Many of the children NCYL serves have suffered traumatic events that may have contributed to the development of mental health disorders—the trauma of abuse and neglect, the pain of being removed from their parents, and the further stress of being bounced from home to home, often raised by strangers.  Most, if not all, at-risk, low-income children are legally entitled to appropriate mental health care.  Nevertheless, many youth with mental illness receive inadequate or inappropriate care, or none at all.

NCYL just successfully resolved a major lawsuit – Katie A. v. Bonta – against the State of California that will fundamentally restructure the way mental health services are delivered to low-income children in California.  Over the next three years we will be working with the State, other advocates, and stakeholders to establish a community-based mental health service delivery system for children in California who are in foster care or at risk of out-of-home placement. We will make wraparound services and therapeutic foster care available to these children on a consistent statewide basis through Medi-Cal.  These changes will dramatically improve outcomes for tens of thousands of low-income children with unmet mental health needs.

NCYL is pursuing a similar federal class action lawsuit, T.R. v. Dreyfus, against the state of Washington for failure to provide intensive, community-based mental health services to Medicaid-eligible children and youth.  Reform is urgently needed to avoid the state’s over-reliance on hospitals and group homes to treat serious mental illness and to make adequate care available to youth in their homes and communities.  This case will impact tens of thousands of low-income youth with mental health needs.  The class has been certified and the parties are engaging in productive settlement discussions.

NCYL helped create, and is a crucial partner in, juvenile mental health courts in Santa Clara and Alameda counties.  The courts focus on treatment, rather than punishment.  The courts divert mentally ill teenagers away from a juvenile justice system that is likely to exacerbate their mental health problems, into community-based services where there is hope for effective treatment and reduction in delinquent behavior.  NCYL is working to improve the model for these courts and sharing its knowledge with others.  To this end, in February 2011, NCYL released a report on Alameda County’s Collaborative Juvenile Court, which describes the workings of the court, evaluates its impact, and makes recommendations for improvement.  Our report gives other nascent courts a roadmap to follow, and provides tools for improving and evaluating existing courts.  The report’s outcome data not only lends credibility to the model, it also identifies tools for measuring the effectiveness of the collaborative court approach.  We are sharing what we have learned from this report through presentations at national conferences.

We are addressing child sexual exploitation on our home turf in Oakland, where arrests of minors for soliciting prostitution nearly tripled from 2008 to 2009.  In fact, Oakland is one of two leading hubs in the United States of child trafficking in the sex trade.  Many of the exploited girls come from foster care and/or immigrant communities, and although they are victims, they are often treated as perpetrators of crime.  NCYL’s new project will link victims of child sexual exploitation with mental health care and community supports in Alameda County to get them out of detention and into safe placements.  As part of the project, NCYL will provide direct representation in matters involving Medicaid, special education, and child welfare.  We will add an anti-trafficking component to the existing juvenile mental health court by recruiting sexual exploitation advocates as full partners in the court.

Adolescent Health Care

NCYL’s Adolescent Health Care Project works to make comprehensive healthcare available for all adolescents.  The Center works to ensure that teenagers have access to reproductive health and mental health care, paying special attention to the needs of vulnerable populations such as youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

Youth need appropriate, individualized, quality medical care in order to grow up healthy.  Teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, drug abuse, and mental illness are among the gravest risks adolescents face.  Adolescents have the highest rates of suicide, accidental death, and unintended pregnancy.  They also have the highest rates of certain sexually transmitted diseases, including those that lead to disability and death.  Because these serious health risks involve prohibited or stigmatized behaviors, access to medical treatment is often restricted or denied. Adolescents are uninsured and underinsured at higher rates than other age groups and, even when covered by private health insurance or Medicaid, they do not always receive the care to which they are entitled.

The primary goal of NCYL’s Adolescent Health Care Project is to eliminate barriers to health care for adolescents. NCYL provides information and technical assistance to health care providers, and promotes policies that increase teens’ access to care.

The Project was founded in 1984 by former NCYL attorney Abigail English, making NCYL one of the first legal organizations in the US to recognize and specialize in this important area of law, and Abigail became its foremost national expert. NCYL Senior Attorney Rebecca Gudeman took leadership of the Project when she joined NCYL in 2001.

One of the Project’s major activities is training of health care providers.  In the past two years, we have educated more than 2,000 health care providers and other professionals about the reproductive health rights of teenagers, and worked with organizations and providers to improve policy and practice.  We also support innovative health care delivery models such as school-based health care programs.  Recent successes include the creation of guides for health providers in more than a dozen states that help them navigate consent, confidentiality, and child abuse reporting law so that they can provide better services to teen patients. In 2006, the Adolescent Health Care Project launched its own website,, to make its library of materials and technical support accessible to providers and other professionals nationwide.

In addition, because access to reproductive health care is critically important for adolescents, NCYL has participated in litigation to protect such access. In Committee to Defend Reproductive Rights v Myers, NCYL staff attorney Abigail English, working with other advocates, won a ruling from the California Supreme Court that poor, pregnant women, including teenagers, have a right under the California Constitution to state funding for abortions as well as for prenatal care; in Planned Parenthood v Van de Kamp, minors’ right to privacy under the California Constitution was affirmed; and in American Academy of Pediatrics v Lungren, Abigail represented poor young women who challenged a California law requiring minors seeking abortions to obtain parental consent or a court order. The law was enjoined before it took effect, and after 10 years in California state courts, the California Supreme Court ultimately held that the law violated a minor’s right to privacy under the California Constitution.

The court made several important findings in reaching this conclusion: Minors’ privacy rights under the California Constitution are protected to the same extent as those of adults; the right to privacy includes the right to decide whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy; and mandating parental consent could harm the health of minors as well as the parent-child relationship. NCYL continues to defend that right against repeated attempts to overturn it through California’s initiative process.