When case workers opened Jennifer Rodriguez’s foster care file in the 80’s, this is what they read: lives in group home, violent, prescribed psychotropic medication, history of homelessness, enrolled in special education.
Today, case workers in the child welfare system know her as the new executive director of the Youth Law Center (YLC), a national public interest organization that protects the rights of youth in foster care and juvenile justice systems. Rodriguez has a law degree from the University of California-Davis and over 12 years experience advocating for the rights of youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.
“Within child welfare I think that there are groups of young people who are more written off than others, who people see as less hopeful,” said Rodriguez. “But what people often fail to recognize, and this is what a parent recognizes with their child, is that those very same qualities that may cause ripples in a system and make a young person not quite fit into the model, end up being qualities that are really assets.”
Rodriguez says her journey to the top of the leading child welfare organization reminds her of one of her favorite movies: Forrest Gump.
“He kept getting put in all these different situations where suddenly he was a star, but it was simply because of the context he was put in,” she said. “He became a world-class runner because he had a fluke experience and unfortunately I think that is the way foster care operates right now. Many of us who have managed to be successful landed there by fluke.”
Rodriguez’s experience in group homes, albeit harrowing, would eventually prepare for her lifelong work in advocacy.
Rodriguez says she remembers incidents in her group home when she became so frustrated with a staff member that she threw water in their face. They called the police who deemed the incident assault, and she was entered into the juvenile justice system.
“One of the things that really struck me at the time were kids like me, who were coming out of a traumatic situation and so many of the group homes were so ill-equipped to deal with our issues.
One of the most salient issues were those of abuse, which Rodriguez remembers staff members at juvenile justice facilities being insensitive towards. During an intake process, Rodriguez recalls being made to strip naked in front of three staff members and watered down with a hose to be cleaned and checked for contraband.
“When you’re a child who’s already experienced physical and sexual abuse, that’s the kind of thing that triggers past situations and makes you uncomfortable with the situation you’re entering,” says Rodriguez.
“Still when I visit facilities, I see some of the same practices and I see very little sensitivity given to the fact that so many young women have experienced abuse at the hand of power of adults. We really need to look for alternatives for them that are more family-based alternatives.”
Rodriguez’s “fluke” experience with a positive child welfare experience was connecting as a young adult with a program that could have helped her years before. After graduating from the San Jose Job Corps in 1994 and during her first semester at San Joaquin Delta College, Rodriguez had a professor who happened to have an invitation for an independent living program on her desk. She suggested Rodriguez volunteer.
She was excited by the opportunity to be one of the people in the audience cheering for each student, and give them the encouragement she rarely ever experienced. She attended ,and the independent living coordinator asked her to sign up for a committee.
At one of the committee meetings, someone mistook her for a member of the the California Youth Connection (CYC). Not knowing what that was, Rodriguez went home and researched CYC.
California Youth Connection is a youth-led advocacy organization, founded in 1988, which provides foster youth with leadership and advocacy skills to encourage policymakers to improve the foster care system.
“I’ve been looking for this organization my whole life.,” Rodriguez recalls thinking. “This is family.”
She joined, and became a voice for youth who are rarely heard.
“Standing up in front of a bunch of social workers and for the first time watching as I describe my experience getting placed into a group home for the first time, everyone was quiet and writing notes, and I thought wow, this is intoxicating,” recalls Rodriquez.
“Now it’s not just one more thing I’ve experienced but it’s actually an agent of change that I can use to make sure it doesn’t happen to another young person,” she continues.
While advocating for the rights of California’s foster youth with CYC, Rodriguez decided she wanted to go to law school, which she did in tandem with her job as the organization’s legislative and policy manager. It was also during her time with CYC where she learned about the Youth Law Center, helped develop and shared an office with CYC.
One day at work, Rodriguez remembers overhearing former YLC Executive Director Carole Shauffer screaming on the phone in outrage after learning children were sleeping in office buildings. That was the moment she knew she wanted to work for YLC.
“The level of outrage she had, I had never heard from anyone in the system before because it was a mother’s outrage,” Rodriguez said. Not just someone who was getting a paycheck.”
While Rodriguez was listening to staff at the Youth Law Center, they were looking at her. Rodriguez’s advocacy efforts resulted in the development of a foster youth bill of rights, educational rights and services for foster youth, and increased efforts for permanency for older youth. Shauffer hired her in 2007.
Now as executive director, Shauffer is confident Rodriguez will uphold the same passion and high standard in her new role.
“I believe she has the same passion that I use toward these issues,” says Shauffer. “We chose her because of her experience organizing groups and her creativity and expertise. We also think she represents a new generation of advocates not only because of her history but her knowledge of issues for youth.”
The YLC has worked on litigation including action against California Medi-Cal policies, which it claims denies necessary medical care to children who have other insufficient coverage, and a lawsuit challenging the conditions of confinement of youth in the Ohio Department of Youth Services’ training schools.
True justice for youth, according to Rodriguez, is every young person feeling respected, having the opportunity to weigh in on major life decisions, and child welfare leaders treating their roles with urgency.
“Our jobs are about individual children and individual lives…and the minute anyone forgets that or loses sight of that…then all is lost. So I’m the person continuing to re-steer the car.”
Ryann Blackshere is a reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change