Litigator Bill Grimm Used Class-Action Lawsuits to Transform Troubled Child Welfare Agencies

Bill and his wife, Sherianne. Photo courtesy of the National Center for Youth Law

Bill Grimm, a long-time attorney with the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), passed away on April 2 after a year-long battle with brain cancer.

He was 69.

Over a 40-year career, Grimm helped forge change for many troubled child welfare systems across the country through trailblazing litigation and legislative advocacy, including in Maryland, Arkansas, Utah, Washington, Nevada and California, among others.

He also served as a mentor and model for a generation of children’s advocates, according to those who worked with him.

“He knew that every child deserved justice every day,” said Maureen Flatley, a child welfare consultant. “And he never stopped working toward that goal.”

Last month, Grimm was honored for his life’s work with the Mark Hardin Award by the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law.

In a nomination letter for the award, former NCYL director Peter O’Toole called Grimm “the single most effective child welfare litigator in America.”

Grimm started at the National Center for Youth Law in 1988, and during his time there, he participated in several high-profile lawsuits that challenged negligent state and county child welfare practices across the country.

Bill Grimm

In 1993, he led a team from NCYL that sued Utah over its child welfare practices including inadequate resources and high caseloads. After nearly 15 years and court monitoring, Utah’s foster care system saw numerous improvements including improved funding to help care for abused and neglected children.

In Braam v. State of Washington, Grimm initiated a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 3,500 foster children who experienced multiple placements. Started in 1998, the case went all the way to the Washington Supreme Court, which ruled that the state’s practice of moving foster youth from placement to placement was emotionally harmful and unconstitutional. The resulting settlement provided a plan for minimizing placement changes for children in foster care, providing mental health treatment, and helping foster parents with training, among other improvements.

In California, Grimm worked on several successful legislative efforts in recent years. In 2007, he helped draft California Senate Bill 39, which provides public access to the child welfare files of children who die because of abuse and neglect.

In recent years, Grimm helped drive attention to the need to monitor the way foster youth are unnecessarily and illegally prescribed psychotropic medications. He helped direct a class-action lawsuit in Missouri as well as advocate for increased oversight for their use among foster youth. Five California state bills designed to better regulate psychotropic medication became law as a result of his work, according to his colleagues.

Prior to his work at NCYL, Grimm worked at Maryland Legal Aid Bureau for 13 years, where he helped develop and lead the Child Advocacy Unit at Legal Aid in Baltimore. Under his watch, he brought the L.J. v. Massinga class-action lawsuit which sought to protect foster children in Baltimore from maltreatment and ensure they had adequate health services.

Two attorneys who worked with him at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau hailed his generosity as a mentor to many child welfare attorneys.

“We learned from Bill how to be fearless but reasonable and respectful advocates; how to move from individual cases to systemic issues and back again from systemic reforms to individual cases,” wrote Mitchell Mirviss and Rhonda Lipkin earlier this year. “Above all, we learned how to respect the opinions and views of our young clients, to understand how bureaucracies and even courts overlooked their needs and opinions for the sake of convenience, deference to authority, and mindless cost-saving, and to learn how to litigate effectively to become persuasive and successful advocates for kids.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Sarah Pauter of San Diego-based Phenomenal Families, who was able to work with Grimm for the first time this year.

“I’m not sure he knew what an impact he had on me and how much I valued the opportunity to work alongside him. I’m also not sure he realized that he made a dream of mine come true in the final weeks of his life. He was an incredible man who fought tirelessly for children across the country and inspired countless young advocates, myself included,” Pauter said in a Facebook post. “Above all, he was a kind and generous individual who put children and youth at the heart of his work. He will truly be missed.”

Even toward the end of his life, Grimm never stopped his advocacy efforts, working on current California legislation until the last weeks of his life.

“What amazes me is that every day, I have a Google alert for foster care, that it’s just astounding how frequently you can’t go a day without an alert picking up some incidence of a child being beaten in foster care or sexually abused,” Grimm said in a recent profile published in the Vallejo Times-Herald.

Thousands of foster children across the country are still reaping that legacy.

“Bill’s passing has shaken NCYL’s foundation; he is a hero in this organization,” said NCYL Executive Director Jesse Hahnel in an encomium on NCYL’s website. “I count myself incredibly fortunate to have had the privilege of working beside Bill for a decade, witnessing firsthand the brilliance and devotion he deployed in service of vulnerable children. He inspired and mentored a generation of child advocates. He will always be with us as we work tirelessly to advance justice on behalf of the children to whom he committed his life.”

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 281 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.