40 Years of Transforming the Lives of Children and Youth in the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems

By Giving List Staff   |   October 14, 2021

The Youth Law Center’s Executive Director Jennifer Rodriguez knows just how hard being a child in the foster care and juvenile justice systems can be. Rodriguez grew up in foster care and by her teens was incarcerated. She experienced homelessness, was trafficked, and struggled to find housing or employment because she had a juvenile record.

“I ended up experiencing all the things that we advocate against,” she says.

Rodriguez turned these experiences into action: first as a young person advocating for policy change in Sacramento, then earning her law degree, and finally assuming the helm of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center (YLC), widely regarded as one of the most influential child advocacy organizations in the country. 

YLC has improved the lives of abused and neglected children and youth across America. They work closely with the top experts in child development to change child welfare and juvenile justice practice. YLC’s work has helped to decrease the use of solitary confinement, has decreased youth suicide in juvenile detention, and has decreased the use of inhumane practices in juvenile facilities, including the use of pepper spray, leg chains, and violent restraints against young people. 

Today, Rodriguez leads YLC in its mission to reconstruct foster care and the juvenile justice systems into institutions that create positive changes for children. YLC’s advocacy is centered around listening to those directly impacted, including children, young adults, birth families, and foster families so that it’s their experiences that drive change. This change is implemented via legal advocacy, litigation, and policy changes that transform how systems work with children and families. For over four decades, YLC has led the field to transform systems to be truly child-focused and research informed. YLC’s impact on the lives of children includes: advocacy resulting in closure of dangerous youth prisons and institutions; outlawing the practice of sending foster and juvenile justice involved youth to out-of-state institutions where youth have died and been seriously injured; increasing support for youth to live in families in their community; and ensuring youth who are transitioning to adulthood have access to housing, economic support, and postsecondary education so they can thrive. 

YLC is also known for applying the latest child and brain development research to practice and policy. When research showed life-long negative impacts babies and toddlers experienced when placed in foster care shelters, YLC sued and changed the law in California, Florida, and Nevada to stop the practice. Their advocacy led to a landmark California and federal law restricting institutional care for all children except as a last resort. 

Most importantly, to help child welfare achieve the goal of moving away from institutions so every child receives excellent parenting in a family, YLC launched the Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI), a national movement of more than 80 jurisdictions and 10 states committed to ensuring that all children in care have excellent parenting and lasting relationships so they can thrive and grow. This year, YLC received a “Children’s Champion” award from the federal government for QPI’s success in changing policy, practice and culture to “Reshape Foster Care as a Support For Families.”

“We have changed the field to no longer tolerate the practice of warehousing children in institutions because they now understand how this practice disrupts childhood,” Rodriguez says. “Now, through QPI, we are working across the county to ensure every one of those children receives the love and parenting they deserve.”

In response to the pandemic, Rodriguez says YLC was the first advocacy organization in the country to create emergency advocacy guides for how foster youth could be connected to resources for funding for rent, food, education, and mental health services. YLC led efforts in California and with Congress to ensure pandemic response bills included critical support for youth in foster care to prevent homelessness and create a safety net. With children of her own, Rodriguez appreciates that her work is much more than stopping bad things from happening, it’s about making children’s lives better.

“What I want for my children and all of the children that YLC touches is for them to realize happiness and thrive – to feel loved and cared for. These are not privileges, but rights for every child.”


Youth Law Center

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Jennifer Rodriguez


The Youth Law Center advocates to transform foster care and juvenile justice systems across the nation so every child and youth can thrive.

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YLC is, quite simply, effective. The team, led by Jennifer Rodriguez, is top notch, bringing together legal expertise, lived experience, a commitment to being youth-centered, and the advocacy chops to effect systemic change. A recent example is the advocacy around out-of-state placements for foster youth. YLC researched 16 facilities housing CA kids and found abuse, neglect, appalling conditions, and rights violations. YLC’s advocacy campaign resulted in the State of CA halting admissions to those facilities and beginning the process to decertify them in favor of family-based placements. Systems change work takes time but is deeply satisfying, and why the Foundation continues to support YLC.
Nancy Wiltsek, MNA
Executive Director, van Loben Sels/RembeRock Foundation
Youth Law Center’s advocacy to prioritize relationships and parenting for children holds great promise for American child welfare policy and practice. Without question, it is the most exciting innovation in child welfare that I have witnessed in my career.
Charles H. Zeanah, Jr, MD
Tulane University Mary Peters Sellars-Polchow
Chair of Psychiatry Vice Chair, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry;
Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics;
Executive Director, Infant Institute

Catalyze Systemic Change That Gives All Children the Opportunity to Flourish

YLC believes all children and youth can thrive with the right support, opportunities, and love. Children and youth in foster care and the juvenile justice system are no exception.

For more than forty years, the Youth Law Center (YLC) has tirelessly advocated to create systemic changes that place these children at the heart of the systems that serve them. YLC works to ensure safe and humane conditions; fights for education and economic opportunities; and strives to create a system where every child has the quality parenting and love necessary to flourish.

The COVID-19 emergency has further disrupted the lives of these already vulnerable youth by preventing access to education, relationships, and healthcare. A donation to the YLC Pandemic Response Campaign will allow us to quickly address these issues through advocacy to ensure basic needs and connection to family, community and opportunity. Together, we can help get these children and youth back on track, and give them the best chance at the future they deserve.

Through December 31, 2022, a portion of every donation will be matched thanks to a generous challenge grant from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation.

Key Supporters

Akonadi Foundation
Alyssa Martin
Bruce Cohen & Gale Mondry
Fatima Goss Graves
Heidi Foreman
Carol and Howard F. Fine
Iris Hu
Jeffrey Ross & Janice Platt
Joy Singleton
Moon & Matthew Gemello
May & Stanley Smith Charitable Trust
Mehrzad Khajenoori
Babak Naficy
Michael Loeb
Nate Levine & Charlene Akers
Ray Tucker
The California Wellness Foundation
Tipping Point Community
Honorable Tomar Mason
Bill Koski and Sundari Wind
Zellerbach Family Foundation