Children’s Rights Attorney
Q: You’ve worked with court involved children, youth, and young adults for more than 20 years. How did you get your start in juvenile justice?
A: When I was attending College Prep, I was introduced to the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco—started by a College Prep mom—and I thought it was extraordinary. When I went to college, I volunteered for a program called After School Kids where I tutored and mentored kids in the juvenile justice system and I loved it. After college, I got my master’s in education, specializing in risk and prevention. Later, the then-mayor, Willie Brown, asked Delancey Street to revamp the entire juvenile justice system for the children of San Francisco and I was asked to come on as a consultant. It was my dream opportunity.
Q: What was the path to getting your law degree after working as a teacher?
A: At Delancey we started six new programs, and one of them, my real love, was Life Learning Academy—a charter high school on Treasure Island for the Bay Area’s most vulnerable students. I got to write the charter for the school. I became the English teacher and ran the outdoor education program. I took all the kids rafting and rock climbing—all the things I loved to do. I would also go with the kids to court.
One of my favorite kids was shot and killed in gang-related violence. It was devastating. I was feeling a sense of injustice so I decided to go to law school. I always knew I wanted to work with kids in the juvenile justice system. While I was in law school, I clerked for a semester for the dad of one of my best friends from College Prep who was a juvenile court judge.
Q: What was the turning point for you where you pivoted to your work on a national scale?
A: I filled in for a colleague at the National Juvenile Defender Center doing policy work in Washington D.C. I ended up staying for almost six years because it was extraordinary. My first initiative was with Senator Kennedy’s office, a resolution commemorating the 40th Anniversary of In re Gault, which is the Supreme Court decision that gave children due process rights. From there I worked for Human Rights Watch. Early on, I became very close with Congressman Bobby Scott, who is our nation’s juvenile justice champion. Together we worked on the bill called the Youth PROMISE (Prison Reduction Through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education) Act.
Q: Looking back on all of your experiences, what does it take to improve the juvenile justice system?
A: I’ve gotten to see juvenile justice from the angle of a teacher, attorney, policy advocate, and now as an appellate attorney. It takes everyone working together—it takes teachers, families, communities, community-based organizations, and it takes a government that cares and will invest in kids.
Q: When you were working in juvenile justice reform what did that look like versus now? What still needs to be done?
A: The juvenile justice system was set up over a hundred years ago as a rehabilitative model. Then we got into the uber punitive era in the 1990s. We saw huge changes in sentencing and a focus on punishment. Children started to be treated as young adults and we criminalized adolescent behavior. We saw that reflected in sentencing. We had the death penalty for children. Through Supreme Court cases and scientific research on brain development and advocacy work there’s been a realization that the “lock them up and throw away the key” approach doesn’t work. We spend more money on incarceration than any other country—it’s ineffective and it’s not humane.
California recently realigned its Division of Juvenile Justice to focus more on rehabilitation. That is one of the good things I’ve seen. I do believe healthcare should absolutely be a universal right and that includes mental healthcare. The juvenile justice system doesn’t exist—and it can’t be effective—in isolation. We need all of the support.
Q: What are the types of cases you work on as a children’s rights attorney?
A: I’m doing appeals for delinquency cases. Many of these kids were in the dependency system—first foster care abuse, neglect, and now they’re in the delinquency system. I’ve never had a client in the juvenile justice system who wasn’t first a victim neglected by society, by families.
Q: What aspect of your College Prep education best prepared you for college and beyond?
A: I learned to write in high school. I’ve written a lot about advocacy and it’s been an invaluable tool for me. I was in the English Honors program at Georgetown and it was easier than College Prep. I was an English major in college, thanks to College Prep. I remember Bob Baldwin, who was the Head of School when I was at College Prep, used to talk about the meaning of success. Since then, I’ve always known that leaving the world a better place for children was my definition of success. That’s what I want my legacy to be when I die—that I made the world a little bit better for kids.
Q: What advice do you give young people who are interested in pursuing law as a career?
A: I would give any young person the advice and plea to use the law to fight for justice. Use it to make the world more just and help create hope for young people.
Q: What advice would you give your high school self today?
A: Don’t worry so much about what college you’re going to get into. I stressed so much about my grades and I felt so much pressure. Walker Percy, who’s one of my favorite authors, said, “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” Enjoy life, do your best, and focus more about who you are as a person rather than what grades you’re getting or what you look like to the outside world. Measure your own work internally and the difference you make.