In August, after several years at the helm of one of National Center for Youth Law’s flagship programs, former Skadden Fellow Jesse Hahnel (’09) was named executive director of the organization, which works to improve the lives of disadvantaged and low-income children around the country.
Jesse describes his new role at NCYL as an “incredible opportunity” to make a difference. As executive director, he oversees a team of more than 40 attorneys, liaisons, advocates and support staff in five offices in California, New Mexico and Arizona, including its Oakland headquarters. NCYL serves as a legal resource for private attorneys, legal services programs, social services organizations, community groups, health care professionals and others serving poor children. In addition, NCYL files amicus briefs, serves as co-counsel in cases affecting a large number of children and families, and advocates in court and state legislatures to preserve and develop programs for poor children.
“There are over 16 million children living in poverty, and improving their lives requires reform at a lot of different levels,” Jesse says. “Fortunately, I think the center is well-positioned to continue making a difference.”
Part of that work is FosterEd, the program Jesse pitched in his application to the Skadden Fellowship Foundation and then established as a Fellow in 2009. With a goal to help foster children raise their GPAs, increase attendance and improve graduation rates, FosterEd partners with local education, child welfare and judicial agencies to implement initiatives for foster children and to train educators and specialists teaching its curriculums. The program also develops partnerships with state agencies to support a consistent improvement in access to resources for foster children. FosterEd started out as a demonstration project in Indiana, which developed into a state-funded and operated program. Additional pilot projects have been launched in California, New Mexico and Arizona. The program has earned recognition from the data-driven Center for the Study of Social Policy as one of the few initiatives to help foster youth thrive.
“I’m very proud of FosterEd, but FosterEd is not just me,” says Jesse, the first former Skadden fellow to head the organization that sponsored his or her fellowship. “The reason it was successful is the staff — the people that make up FosterEd, and all of NCYL, are extraordinary.”
In recent years, NCYL has filed amicus briefs in support of a juvenile health case in Alaska, urging the court to consider the Equal Protection implications of a state law requiring minors to notify their parents prior to obtaining an abortion, and has served as co-counsel in Massachusetts and Washington class actions seeking broad reforms to their child welfare systems and mental health services, respectively. In 2014, the organization helped pass legislation in California that created the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Program, which funds prevention, intervention, training and other services in support of traffcked children.
A graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School, Jesse worked as a middle and high school teacher at inner-city public schools in New York and Washington, D.C. prior to pursuing a law career, which provided him a close look at the needs of disadvantaged children. That experience continues to inform his work at the NCYL.
“The reason I came to the National Center for Youth Law is that it has always held a deep-seated belief — it’s reflected in our work and will continue to be — that the strategies for improving the lives of at-risk children need to be multipronged, well-thought out and coordinated,” Jesse says. “That’s part of the reason I’m so excited to serve as executive director.”