December 20, 2020

Celebrating Youth Law Center's 2020 Unsung Heroes

Each year, the Youth Law Center honors Unsung Heroes, a celebration of everyday people who make a difference in the lives of children in the juvenile justice and foster care systems. This year, we are thrilled to honor the people who have worked incredibly hard for youth in the foster care and juvenile justice system during a very challenging year. Join us in celebrating, and expressing our gratitude for, each of our honorees and the critical work they are doing to ensure justice and love for children and youth. Congratulations to all of the 2020 honorees! Learn more about them below.


Youth Justice Team
Bay Area Legal Aid

YLC celebrates the civil legal aid programs that have worked tirelessly to provide critical individual advocacy during Covid-19 to systems involved transition aged youth in accessing public benefits like extended foster care, unemployment and food stamps, preventing housing instability and displacement, and advocating for local systems reform. We honor BAYLA’s Youth Justice Team as an exemplary example of the power of civil legal aid for youth exiting foster care and juvenile justice. The Youth Justice Team’s advocacy protected many vulnerable young adults in the Bay Area from homelessness, economic disaster, exploitation and violence. We are grateful for their partnership and expertise as we worked together to protect youths’ rights and prevent eviction of system involved youth. Programs like the YJT have always been critical, but as youth navigate the transition to adulthood in our new strained economy, they are essential. Thank you to all of our colleagues at the Youth Justice Team- you are our Unsung Heroes and your work is deeply appreciated!

“Bay Area Legal Aid’s Youth Justice Team was quick to respond to the new challenges presented by COVID-19 and have fought zealously to preserve housing, public benefits, and other vital resources for their teenage and young adult clients. They have been valuable partners in shaping YLC’s advocacy for former foster youth clients who were facing a loss of transitional housing right in the middle of the pandemic and in ensuring that young people in extended foster care could remain in care past the age of 21. These civil legal advocates have been on the front lines this year, and we are so grateful for the work they are doing.” – Sabrina Forte, YLC Staff Attorney


Nicole Lee
Executive Director, Urban Peace Movement

YLC celebrates the community based movement building organizations who are leading the charge to both divest from harming youth through incarceration, punishment and criminalization and invest in healing, hope, and community for youth. On any given day, 60,000 young people are involved with California’s juvenile justice system. Research is clear that spending any period of time behind bars can cause lifelong harmful effects for a teenager. Covid-19 outbreaks in detention facilities and resulting lock-downs that isolate youth from their loved ones have just increased the dangers and made the need to ensure youth are released from detention facilities and returned to their families more urgent. We are thrilled to honor Nicole Lee and the Urban Peace Movement (UPM) for their relentless efforts to ensure the freedom and futures of children and youth in Oakland, California. It takes a special leader to hold the vision of freedom, invest in the leadership of directly impacted youth, and build a movement where everyone feels included and committed. Through YLC’s close partnership with Nicole and UPM this year on the Free Our Kids Coalition’s work to end the criminalization of youth in Alameda County, YLC has seen Nicole as exactly that special leader. Together, we successfully halted the plan to build a new juvenile camp in Alameda County, and are now working to reinvent the County’s approach to juvenile justice.  Thank you to Nicole and UPM – you are leading us towards freedom for Black and Brown youth and are our Unsung Heroes!

“Nicole has been like magic glue for the Free Our Kids coalition. Keeping us moving forward, making space for everyone, and teaching (by her example) the way to build as a community. She is also the very last person to ever take credit for anything– giving credit and lifting the contributions of others is her natural resting state.” – Erin Palacios, YLC Staff Attorney


Billy Wagner
Program Analyst, California Student Aid Commission

YLC celebrates the agency administrators and staff who lead through service by using their role to problem solve and accelerate youth-focused solutions in their work daily. Agencies hold ultimate responsibility for ensuring the well-being of the children and youth they are responsible for, and in such an important role, excellence must be the standard. We celebrate Billy Wagner of the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC), as an example of excellence in public service, for his role as a partner in our advocacy to increase postsecondary access for youth involved with the juvenile justice system. When we brought to Billy the challenges created because of misunderstanding and misinformation about financial aid eligibility for students with juvenile justice involvement, Billy took initiative to clarify the CalGrant language in the CSAC handbook, support development of new resources, and analyze data that would support juvenile justice involved students achieving their educational aspirations. These efforts are more important than ever due the economic strains students have been facing during the pandemic. Thank you to Billy for your leadership in going above and beyond to ensure educational access and opportunity for justice involved students-  you are our Unsung Hero!

“When I sent an email to asking if anyone could talk to me about financial aid for youth in the juvenile justice system, I didn’t anticipate that it would lead to such a wonderful partner as Billy Wagner. In the span of a few months, Billy helped us make a change that I thought would take a year- clarifying that youth in juvenile detention are eligible for CalGrant. Since then, he has been an incredibly helpful connector and thought partner, and I greatly appreciate his willingness to go out of his way to answer technical questions and look over documents. So often the key to this work is finding the one or two people in a particular field who are willing, ready, and able to advocate on behalf of youth in the juvenile justice system, and I feel so lucky to have found Billy at CSAC on my first try!” – Jasmine Miller, YLC Staff Attorney


SPARK Initiative
VOICES Youth Center

YLC celebrates the young people that used their lived experience to support their peers through this year’s natural disasters and pandemic with wisdom, commitment and a sense of urgency. VOICES‘ SPARK Initiative is a model example of the power of peer advocacy and support in supporting  system-involved youth to successfully transition to adulthood. This year, youth faced extreme isolation, school challenges, homelessness, hunger, unemployment, and health challenges- often completely alone. Very few providers have actually been able to meet youth where they are at this year and be immediately responsive and effective, but VOICE’s peer advocates continue to do so. We honor VOICES, the SPARK Initiative and its peer advocates. As we re-imagine what supports truly help youth thrive, we believe peer delivered services and support will be foundational. Thank you to all of our colleagues at the VOICES’ SPARK Initiative- you are our Unsung Heroes!

“The SPARK Initiative at VOICES Youth Center does excellent work advocating for system-involved youth who are experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area. Just a few weeks into the COVID-19 public health crisis, SPARK’s peer advocates were doing incredible work distributing food, identifying shelter and housing resources, and continuing their in-person outreach services when other in-person services were closed. We are inspired by and grateful for the team at SPARK and VOICES for their innovative peer advocacy model and their tireless work advocating for young people.”  – Sabrina Forte, YLC Staff Attorney


Scharron Kane
Program Administrator, Ohio Department of Youth Services

YLC celebrates the agency administrators and staff who are motivated by absolute commitment to meeting the needs of the youth they are responsible for. This year, this youth-centered leadership has mattered more than ever, as youth’s lives and connections were completely disrupted. In YLC’s work on our Just Beginning visitation program for incarcerated teen fathers, we see how teens who are separated from their children experience visits with their children as a lifeline and source of hope. We believe one of the most important responsibilities of any system that cares for youth is to support those youth in becoming the great parents they dream of being. Incarcerated teen parents, particularly fathers, are an often ignored and overlooked population, who often face institutional facility barriers to visiting and maintaining a relationship with their child. Our Just Beginning partners, like the Ohio Department of Youth Services are making sure these young dads are supported in developing and maintaining relationships with their babies. We honor Scharron Kane, Program Administrator at Ohio Department of Youth Services for being an exemplary Just Beginning partner and an advocate for young fathers. Scharron, thank you for your service and leadership- you are our Unsung Hero!

“Scharron goes above and beyond to ensure incarcerated fathers and their children have opportunities to bond and build meaningful relationships. She tirelessly seeks to implement programming that achieves these goals. She has worked with Just Beginning  for 7 years in Ohio and currently oversees the Every Child Matters program (ECM). ECM and JB have continued virtual programming for Ohio since Covid-19.  She really is an exemplary advocate for young fathers.” – Terry Harrak, Consultant, Just Beginning

William F. Abrams
Shareholder, Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt
Member of the Board of Directors, Youth Law Center

YLC’s long history of impactful advocacy has been possible because of many fierce and brilliant champions that have dedicated their talent, resources and time to our mission. William “Bill” Abrams, shareholder at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, is one of these champions. Bill served on YLC’s Board of Directors for nearly two decades, guiding and supporting our advocacy through changing times and opportunities with patience, wisdom, and humor. Bill’s impact extends well beyond YLC- he volunteered countless hours on pro bono cases litigating to uphold the rights of the most vulnerable, including: fighting for those sentenced to the death penalty; for the rights of children in foster care; for students to receive appropriate special education supports; challenging inhumane prison conditions, fighting for racial justice and civil rights and for justice for those who had been wrongfully convicted. As a member of the Stanford faculty teaching courses on topics such as civil rights, policy, and the death penalty, Bill has also invested in the leadership of new generations of advocates who define, enforce and protect rights for all. Bill, we are so grateful for your leadership and all of the ways you have impacted justice for the most vulnerable- you are truly our Unsung Hero!

“Bill Abrams proves how true the saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” is.  Being on YLC’s board is only one of many ways Bill gives himself and his time to fight injustice and support those who need a champion. Bill’s work for inmates facing the death penalty takes him across the country, but has never limited his ability to lead pro bono litigation in California.  His support for the Youth Law Center has been invaluable whether through giving legal advice, direct litigation support or even finding a way to help us celebrate Unsung Heroes. None of this interfered with a very busy private practice, his inspirational teaching or running in marathons around the world. We are so proud that Bill chose to be part of YLC.”  – Carole Shauffer, YLC’s Senior Director, Strategic Initiatives