- National Center for Youth Law - https://youthlaw.org -

NCYL’s Greatest Hits

The following is an overview of the work done in NCYL’s priority areas over the past 40 years.

Child Welfare

Braam v. State of Washington, 81 P.3d 851 (Wash. 2003)—Working with Columbia Legal Services and private attorney Tim Farris, NCYL Senior Attorney Bill Grimm (joined later by NCYL attorney Bryn Martyna) represented thousands of foster children in Washington State who were at risk of experiencing three or more placements. The case established the broad scope of the substantive due process rights of children in foster care.  The subsequent settlement agreement established an oversight panel and lead to significant system reform designed to reduce placement instability and ensure the safety and well-being of foster children in Washington.

Cleaver v. Wilcox, 499 F.2d 940 (9th Cir., 1974)—In this case, NCYL secured the first federal court decision, from the Ninth Circuit, establishing a constitutional right to appointed counsel for indigent parents in cases where the state is trying to take away their children based on allegations of abuse or neglect.

Bradford v. Davis, 626 P.2d 1376 (Ore. S.Ct. 1981)—In this case, NCYL represented a foster child who had been assaulted, beaten, and abused by his foster parents for several years. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the child was entitled to litigate his damage claims against the child welfare agency for failure to adequately supervise his care.

Timothy J. v. Chaffee, No. CA 001128 (Super. Ct. Los Angeles, filed Aug. 26, 1988)—NCYL attorney Alice Bussiere represented more than 50,000 foster children in Los Angeles County. As a result of the case, the county has complied with regulations designed to ensure the safety of foster children by requiring that child welfare workers have regular, face-to-face contact with foster children, biological parents, and foster parents.

David C. v. Leavitt, No. 93-C-206W (D. Utah, filed Feb. 25, 1993)—In 1993, NCYL filed this federal class action lawsuit on behalf of foster children and children reported to be abused or neglected in Utah.   NCYL litigated the case with law firms Morrison & Foerster LLP and Jones Waldo.  David C. resulted in the transformation of Utah’s child welfare system from one of the most dismal, financially starved systems in the country to a system that is well-regarded and emulated by other states in many key respects.  Data showed that the state was investigating abuse and neglect reports more rapidly; caseworkers were visiting children monthly; foster children were receiving timely and appropriate health care services; and children were moving more quickly to adoption instead of languishing for years in foster care.  In addition, comprehensive policies were in place; a state of the art data management system drove decision making; and caseworkers were better trained and supported.  The parties agreed to dismissal of the case in 2008.

San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Campaign—Since 2006, NCYL has played a key role in the San Francisco Chronicle editorial campaign to focus public attention on the plight of children in foster care and get critical foster care laws on the books.  NCYL initiated meetings with the Chronicle’s editorial board and has been among the newspaper’s principal resources throughout the campaign, providing information, contacts, and analysis.  Since the Chronicle launched its campaign, it has published more than 100 editorials and articles on foster care.  The campaign has resulted in more than 25 new child welfare reform bills being passed and $100 million in new money.

Dyer v. CIF, No. RG08421517 (Super. Ct. Alameda, filed Nov. 20, 2008)—NCYL attorneys Leecia Welch, Bryn Martyna, and Jesse Hahnel represented foster youth Dalton Dyer, who was denied the right of other students to play high school sports.  NCYL obtained a temporary restraining order and a writ to secure fair and equal treatment of Dalton and all other foster youth who participate in extracurricular activities.

Child Support Enforcement Project—NCYL undertook a spectacularly successful eight-year campaign to increase the amount of child support collected by the State of California and distributed to custodial parents.  NCYL worked with Legal Services of Northern California, Children Now, and Public Media Center to focus public attention on the woeful inadequacies of California’s child support collection system.  Thereafter, we helped build a constituency for change.  That campaign, funded by the Rosenberg Foundation, led, in 2000, to the enactment of legislation creating a new state Department of Child Support Services.  Between 1995 and 2000, child support collection increased by $1.4 billion.  The person who headed that Department, Curt Child, later became a staff attorney at NCYL.

Juvenile Justice

Commutation of Sara Kruzan—Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted the life without parole sentence imposed on Sara Kruzan to a sentence of 25 years to life. Sara was convicted at the age of 16 for killing her then 37-year- old pimp, who had been trafficking Sara since she was 13 years old. Sara’s case garnered overwhelming national and international support from individuals and organizations fighting child trafficking and the cruel practice of sentencing children to die in prison for crimes they committed before their 18th birthday. NCYL Senior Attorney Pat Arthur and a team of other lawyers from the law firm of Perkins Coie obtained this extraordinary relief for Sara and continue to pursue additional legal avenues to obtain her release from prison.

The Juvenile Justice Reform Project—Launched in 2007 by NCYL Senior Attorney Pat Arthur, this project focuses on reducing the over incarceration of young people and improving alternative community services for youth in trouble with the law. The work of the project has been particularly successful in Arkansas where – in collaboration with the state Division of Youth Services, juvenile court judges, juvenile probation, advocates, and other juvenile justice stakeholders – juvenile commitment rates have been significantly reduced.

Morales v. Turman, 383 F.Supp. 53 (E.D. Tex. 1974), remanded, 562F.2d 993 (5th Cir. 1977) —Filed in 1974 on behalf of incarcerated youth in Texas, this federal class action lawsuit established benchmark standards for the treatment of confined juveniles, including access to medical and psychiatric care, meaningful education, and appropriate disciplinary procedures.

Breed v. Jones, 421 U.S. 419 (1975)—NCYL successfully argued before the US Supreme Court that the constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy is applicable to minors in delinquency proceedings. As a result, juveniles cannot be tried twice – once in juvenile court and, following a transfer hearing, again in criminal court for – for the same offense.

In re Roger S., 19 Cal.3d 921 (1977)—NCYL co-counseled this case with the California State Public Defender’s Office, representing children placed in state mental hospitals by their parents. The California Supreme Court held that children 14 and older are entitled to due process hearings and many due process safeguards, including court-appointed counsel.

Gary H. v. Hegstrom, Civ. No. 77-1039, (D.Ore., filed Dec. 23, 1977)—NCYL staff worked with the Juvenile Rights Project in Portland, Oregon on this case, which led to substantial reforms at the McLaren School, Oregon’s secure juvenile institution.

RWT v. Dalton, C.A. 78-0930-C(4), (E.D. Mo., filed Sept. 6, 1978)—This case, handled by NCYL attorney David Lambert and others, established the principle that detained juveniles have the same right to preliminary probable-cause hearings as adults.

Terry D. v. Rader, No. Civ. 78-004 T (W.D. Okla., filed Jan. 4, 1978)—Working with Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma, NCYL attorneys, including David Lambert, challenged appalling conditions and practices in Oklahoma training schools, including hog-tying, beatings, and lengthy periods of solitary confinement. The lawsuit resulted in the closure of five juvenile institutions.

DB v. Tewksbury, No. 80-817-FR, (D. Ore., filed Sept. 1980)—Working with local attorneys in Oregon, NCYL won a landmark ruling when the federal district court held that confining minors in adult jails violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Johnson v. Upchurch, CIV-86-195-TUC-RMB (D.Ariz., filed Apr. 6, 1986)—NCYL attorney David Lambert worked with a private attorney in Tucson on this federal class action, which resulted in fewer youth being institutionalized, substantially better services for those who are incarcerated, and diversion of many youth to expanded community-based programs.

Health/Mental Health

J.K. v. Dillenberg, 836 F. Supp. 694 (D. Arizona)—NCYL co-counseled this class action brought on behalf of Medicaid-eligible children and youth with serious unmet mental health needs.  After the court ruled that states could not avoid liability under Medicaid by contracting out mental health services, the state settled, agreeing to develop a statewide system to provide intensive home and community based mental health services to thousands of Medicaid-eligible children and youth.

Collaborative Juvenile Mental Health Courts—These courts divert youths with unmet mental health needs from juvenile detention to more appropriate community based mental health care by providing intensive case management and connection to services, rather than relying on the usual adversarial process.  NCYL’s mental health advocates have aided in the creation, development, and evaluation of these courts in California, and improved the model by including civil legal advocates as collaborators.  NCYL’s recent report, Improving Outcomes for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System, showed substantial reductions in detention, new violations, and hospitalizations for youths who participated in Alameda County’s Court.

Katie A. v. Bonta, 481 F.3d 1150 (9th Cir. 2007)—A class action lawsuit co-counseled by NCYL seeking declaratory and injunctive relief for children with mental disabilities who are in foster care or at risk of foster care. Recently settled, a pending agreement requires the state develop a collaborative statewide system to provide home and community based mental health care whenever possible.  Implementation in Los Angeles County has been ongoing, and hundreds of youth have already benefited from more intensive, individualized, wraparound mental health services.  Under the new agreement, thousands of additional youth will be eligible for intensive services that will allow them to avoid institutionalization.

Adolescent Health/ Teen Health Law

NCYL’s Adolescent Health Care Project works to make comprehensive healthcare available to all adolescents.  The Project was founded in 1984 by former NCYL attorney Abigail English, making NCYL one of the first legal organizations in the country 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. The Project uses litigation, education, and advocacy to protect adolescent rights to confidential care and its key issues include adolescent access to reproductive and mental health care, as well as health care access for youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. In 2006, the Adolescent Health Care Project launched its own website, www.TeenHealthLaw.org [1] to make its library of materials more accessible.

Planned Parenthood v. Van de Kamp, 181 Cal.App.3d 245 (1986)—A California appellate court rejected a statutory interpretation by the state’s Attorney General that would have required health care providers to report every case of voluntary sexual activity by a minor under age 14 to child welfare or law enforcement authorities as sexual abuse, regardless of the age of the minor’s partner. In doing so, the court affirmed that minors in California have a right to privacy that is protected under the state constitution.

Committee to Defend Reproductive Rights v. Myers, 29 Cal.3d 252 (1981)—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.

AAP v. Lungren, 26 Cal.App.4th (1st Dist. 1994)—Along with a private law firm in San Francisco and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, NCYL attorney Abigail English successfully represented poor young women through several health care organizations that 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 agreed and 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.

Brown v. Kizer, No. 641954-3 (Super. Ct. Alameda Co., filed Aug. 16, 1988) and Barajas v. Coye, CIV-S-92 (E.D.CA, filed Oct. 29, 1992)—In these two cases staff attorney Alice Bussiere, working with other advocates, has enforced the requirements of Medicaid’s Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) Program to expand children’s access to dental care through the MediCal program. In Brown, California was ordered to provide medically necessary orthodontic services to Medi-Cal eligible children. In Barajas, California began to provide cost-effective preventive dental care, in the form of dental sealants, to Medi-Cal eligible children suffering from severe tooth decay.

Public Benefits

Major v. McMahon, No. 808898 (Super. Ct. San Francisco, filed May 10, 1983)—This case, handled by staff attorney Abigail English, established that disabled California children living with relatives other than their parents have a right equivalent to that of disabled children living with non-relatives to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521 (1990)—Staff attorney Alice Bussiere represented amici before the US Supreme Court in this case, which expanded by some 450,000 the number of poor children able to obtain both cash benefits and Medicaid coverage through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. Following the Supreme Court victory, NCYL worked with other advocates to publicize the ruling so that eligible families would have the information they needed to apply for benefits.

Brazwell v. Wagner, No. RG10505601 (Superior Ct. Alameda 2010)—This case, handled by NCYL staff attorneys Fiza Quraishi and Bryn Martyna, in partnership with the Alliance for Children’s Rights and Morrison and Foerster, LLP, established that the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) cannot deny Kinship Guardianship Assistance Payments (Kin-GAP) to former foster children living with relatives who are  legal guardians if they later enter the delinquency system. As a result of this lawsuit, CDSS has changed its policy and in doing so has ensured that hundreds of relative caregivers will continue to provide stability, love, and support to former foster children regardless of whether the child subsequently has trouble with the delinquency system.


Montes v. Fair Employment and Housing Commission,  (administrative petition filed Nov. 15, 1985)—In this administrative proceeding, staff attorney Jim Morales represented families evicted from a residential motel. The families sought reversal of a policy adopted by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing of refusal to accept complaints of housing discrimination based on familial status. Following a hearing before the Commission, the Department reversed this policy.

Other Litigation

Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974)—In this case in which NCYL represented children whose first language was not English, the US Supreme Court held that children with limited English-speaking ability have a right to bilingual education programs in schools receiving federal funds.

Flores v. Reno, 681 F.Supp. 665 (C.D. Cal. 1988), 113 SCt. 1439 (1993)—As a result of this federal class action brought on behalf of children detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, conditions of confinement for undocumented children improved dramatically. The plaintiffs, represented by NCYL attorneys Jim Morales, Alice Bussiere, and other advocates, also won a court order prohibiting strip searches of children and several orders expanding the circumstances under which the INS will release children from custody.

NCYL v. LSC, 749 F.Supp. 1013 (N.D. Cal. 1990)—NCYL Director John O’Toole and Morrison & Foerster filed this case, in which NCYL sued the Legal Services Corporation after LSC reduced the Center’s 1990 funding by 9.95 percent because of NCYL’s participation in American Academy of Pediatrics v. Lungren. The AAP case successfully challenged California’s statute requiring minors seeking abortions to get either parental consent or a court order. NCYL’s work on the case was supported not by LSC funds, but rather by funds from the California Legal Services Trust Fund Commission, which unanimously approved the Center’s involvement. The federal court ordered LSC to restore the funds.

Landmark Legislation

Senate Bill 39 (2007)—NCYL drafted and co-sponsored California legislation that allows public access to significant portions of child welfare records concerning children who have died from abuse or neglect.  NCYL has since worked on implementing regulations and has tested compliance with the statute in counties that include more than 80 percent of the state’s residents. NCYL is considered a national expert on laws governing access to records on children who have died of abuse.

Assembly Bill 490—In 2003, California passed AB 490, which imposed new duties and rights relating to the education of foster youth. Modeled after the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which afforded educational protections to homeless youth, AB 490 was the first state law in the country to provide a comprehensive set of educational rights for foster youth. AB 490 included provisions intended to increase school stability for foster youth, to ensure that foster youth were placed in mainstream educational settings, to improve the records transfer process between schools, and to allow for protection of grades and credits. NCYL has played a key role in the implementation of AB 490 since its passage. NCYL attorneys have been actively engaged in preparing training materials on the law, instructing stakeholders on the rights and responsibilities created by the law, representing individual students whose AB 490 rights have been violated, and working to expand the reach of the law through new legislation and school board policies.

AB 2216 (Bass, 2006)—A bill sponsored by NCYL to create the California Child Welfare Council in order to establish strong leadership and accountability for the state’s child welfare and foster care system.  The Council is an advisory board charged with monitoring and reporting on the state’s performance in meeting the needs of children and families involved with the system.  The Council meets quarterly, providing a collaborative forum for all three branches of government, foster youth and families, and key stakeholders to advocate for resources, policies and programs that improve outcomes for children, youths and families.  Patrick Gardner, NCYL’s Deputy Director, is an appointed member of the Council.

Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988—NCYL attorney Jim Morales played a key role in the inclusion of families with children as a protected class under the Fair Housing Act, testifying before Congress and convincing other civil rights advocates that families with children should be protected. Thereafter, Jim provided trainings to lawyers nationwide about how to use the new law to protect the housing rights of families with children.

California legislation prohibiting secure detention of status offenders—During its early years, NCYL participated in a successful effort to convince the California Youth Authority to stop accepting status offenders into its institutions. NCYL later played a key role in drafting legislation passed in 1976 providing that status offenders, with very limited exceptions, may not be held in secure custody.