John F. O'Toole: Director of the National Center for Youth Law, Oakland, CA by LawCrossing


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   LAW STAR                                                                                        1. 800.973.1177

                              John F. O’Toole: Director of the National Center for
                              Youth Law, Oakland, CA
                              [By Kenneth Davis]
                              The shifting political and social landscapes of the late 1960s and early 1970s played a big role in shaping John F.
                              O’Toole’s career path as a public interest lawyer and child advocate.

“I was politically active when I was in college      programs intended to help children and             have a “tremendous impact on the lives of
in the late 960s and in law school in the           adolescents, and juvenile justice. The center      tens of thousands of vulnerable children in
early 970s,” he said. “I was outraged by            is comprised of  lawyers and six other           California.”
the injustice of racism and poverty and by           employees who handle various administrative
the war in Vietnam. I wanted to be able to           and fundraising activities. And at any given       “This case provides the opportunity to
change things that I thought were wrong, and         time, there are roughly 0 law students,           redesign the way mental health services
I felt that I could use law as a tool for social     undergraduate interns, and volunteers              are delivered to children in foster care
change.”                                             working at the center. The center has two          in California,” he said. “Children who are
                                                     offices, one in Oakland (where O’Toole             abused or neglected by their parents are
As that’s exactly what O’Toole has been              works) and one in Sacramento.                      normally traumatized by that experience;
doing for more than three decades. A year                                                               and then when they get removed from their
after he earned his law degree from Boalt            O’Toole said the types of cases that the           families and put into foster care, that’s an
Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley in 974,           center is usually involved in tend to be large     additional traumatic experience. So even by
he began working as a staff attorney in              class-action lawsuits against government           the time they go into the foster care system,
the Marysville office of California Rural            entities. He and his colleagues recently won       they’re already fragile, emotionally and
Legal Assistance, which provides free legal          a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles in       psychologically. And many of them do need
assistance to the rural poor. O’Toole worked         which they represented a statewide class           mental health services, and unfortunately,
at the organization for four-and-a-half years,       of foster children who are not getting the         the foster care system doesn’t really address
where he specialized in welfare and public-          necessary mental healthcare. The case, Katie       those needs very effectively.”
benefit issues and general civil rights work.        A. v. Bonta, began in July 2002, when the
He also handled a mixture of individually            center and a consortium of state and national      The center has also achieved a number
oriented cases and larger-scale litigation.          public interest groups filed a class-action        of other legal victories over the years. In
                                                     lawsuit against the California Department of       the case American Academy of Pediatrics
In 980, he joined the National Center for           Health Services, the California Department of      (AAP) v. Lungren, the center worked with
Youth Law as a staff attorney and became its         Social Services, Los Angeles County, and the       the American Civil Liberties Union and
director the following year. He said the chief       Los Angeles County Department of Children          international law firm Morrison & Foerster
aim of the center is to use the law to improve       and Family Services. The suit was filed on         in overturning a California statute that would
the lives of poor children.                          behalf of children who were in, or at risk of      have required a minor to get her parents’
                                                     being in, foster care in California and who        permission or a court order to exercise
“We work to ensure that low-income                   had behavioral, emotional, or psychiatric          her constitutional right to an abortion. In
children have the resources, support, and            needs requiring individualized mental health       Sullivan v. Zebley, the center helped win a
opportunities they need for a healthy and            services. The complaint alleged that the           case in the United States Supreme Court that
productive future,” O’Toole said. “Our job is        defendants’ failure to provide these services      enabled more than 450,000 poor children
to reform and improve systems of care so             had seriously harmed foster children with          and their families to receive both monthly
children actually benefit from them.”                mental health needs. In March, United              cash benefits and Medicaid coverage through
                                                     States district Judge A. Howard Matz issued        the Supplemental Security Income program.
He added that the center, which was                  a preliminary injunction requiring that            The center was also involved in a federal
established in 970, focuses its efforts on          the defendants provide intensive mental            class-action lawsuit, Morales v. Turman, in
four areas: foster care, access to healthcare        health services to foster children who need        Texas that established benchmark standards
and mental healthcare, government                    them. O’Toole said the victory is likely to        for the treatment of confined juveniles and

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   LAW STAR                                                                                  1. 800.973.1177

was the precedent upon which much of the          longer wanted to fund legal services for the     He added that every summer, the center
successful juvenile-conditions lawsuits           poor.”                                           has eight or nine law students and an
nationwide were based. In addition, the                                                            undergraduate intern working there.
center successfully litigated statewide           He said that it is his responsibility to raise
class-action lawsuits in Arkansas, Utah,          $.8 million every year to support the           “These students are among the best and
and Washington that substantially improved        center’s work, starting from zero every year.    brightest law students in the country,”
foster care in those states, as well as played    O’Toole goes to individuals, law firms, and      he said. “We select them from nearly 200
a key role in amending the federal Fair           private foundations to the raise the money,      applicants. It’s amazing to me that we
Housing Amendments Act of 988 to prohibit,       which he said is “incredibly time-consuming      have such incredibly talented students
for the first time, housing discrimination        and challenging.”                                volunteering to work for us. We don’t pay
against families with children.                                                                    them. We are able to arrange fellowships
                                                  O’Toole said that he’s been fortunate enough     and stipends so that the students get paid in
O’Toole said what he enjoys most about            to have a number of mentors over the years.      some way.”
being a child advocate is the opportunity to      He said that when worked at the Legal Aid
help make a difference in the lives of poor       Society of Alameda County as a law student,      O’Toole advised law students interested in a
children.                                         Steve Ronfeldt and Steve Berzon were very        career in child advocacy not to allow others
                                                  influential in shaping him into the lawyer he    to dissuade them.
“If you are able to reach a child early enough,   is today. Other mentors included Richard
you can really turn a life around,” he said.      Pearl, Al Meyerhoff, and Ralph Abascal from      If you want a career as a child advocate, it’s
“That’s exciting and incredibly rewarding.        California Rural Legal Assistance. He added      possible to do; and it’s extremely rewarding,”
Children are too often defenseless in our         that center board president Peter Edelman        he said. “Don’t let people convince you that
society. We provide children with a voice in      is a “tremendous positive influence on [the      there are no jobs or that it’s not a worthwhile
our legal system.”                                center] and me.”                                 endeavor.”

O’Toole said that raising money is one of the     O’Toole said he also really enjoys working       ON THE NET
more difficult challenges that he faces as a      with students at the center.
child advocate.                                                                                    National Center for Youth Law
                                                  “I spend a lot time with the law students who
“We used to get federal money from the            work here and talking to law students and        California Rural Legal Assistance
Legal Services Corporation,” he said.             undergraduates interested in child advocacy
“However, Newt Gingrich and his colleagues        or poverty law careers,” he said. “It’s one of
on the right ended that in 996. We lost over     my favorite parts of my job. I am constantly     Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley
$800,000 in annual funding because the            inspired by their energy, idealism, and
Republicans who controlled Congress no            enthusiasm.”


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