Fostering change

Advocate for foster children wins national award.

By Ret Boney

As a law student, Bill Grimm represented adults who were being involuntarily committed to state mental hospitals, an experience with profound effects.

“I got the sense there had to be some point earlier in life where, if we intervened, people wouldn’t end up in these institutions,” he says.

So for the past 28 years, Grimm, now a senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif., has been working on behalf of low-income and at-risk children, most of them in foster care, and recently won the Kutak-Dodds prize for his decades of effort and accomplishment.

Awarded by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, based in Washington, D.C., the prize recognizes equal-justice advocates working on behalf of people who can’t afford their own legal representation.

“Bill Grimm is a brilliant litigator who has won victories for children across the country,” says Clinton Lyons, president and CEO of the association.  “Through his passion and dedication, has made a tremendously positive impact in the pursuit of justice for America’s low-income communities.”

Grimm’s accomplishments include helping draft legislation to develop Nevada’s sex offender website, bringing a class-action suit on behalf of Baltimore’s foster children that resulted in a revamp of the city’s entire system, and spearheading litigation in Utah, Arkansas and other states, impacting tens of thousands of children.

 Bill GrimmJob: Senior attorney, National Center for Youth Law, Oakland, Calif.

Education: B.A., English literature, J.D., University of Maryland

Born: 1949, Lebanon, Pa.

Family: Wife, Sherianne Cotterell, associate superintendent for schools, West Sacramento school district; six children, ages 13 to 26

Hobbies: Trips to the ocean; flower gardening

Favorite flower: Roses

Book to recommend: “Finding Fish: A Memoir,” by Antwone Q. Fisher

The National Center for Youth Law is a nonprofit with nine attorneys and two fellows that serves poor children and their families, focusing primarily on child welfare, health care and mental-health services, at-risk youth and basic support for poor children like disability and welfare benefits.

“Generally, we don’t represent individual children,” says Grimm.  “We focus on systemic problems and strategies to attack those problems on a large scale, like class-action litigation.”

His biggest recent win was a class-action suit in Washington State that he hopes will improve the lives of the state’s 9,000 foster children.

The case began with another lawyer seeking damages on behalf of 13 children who had been switched from home to home, one of them some 47 times, but Grimm helped convert it to a class-action suit representing all foster children in the state.

“Their lawyer talked with the kids and got the sense that money damages wasn’t as critical to them as preventing this from happening to children who came behind them,” says Grimm.

A seven-week jury trial followed and ultimately went to the state supreme court before a settlement was reached to form a panel of experts that has been given the authority to set standards of care for Washington’s foster-care system.

Grimm, a native of Lebanon, Pa., says he always knew he wanted to work in legal services, in part because of the influence of his grandfather, a liberal Methodist minister with a passion for all people, especially those without advocates, and because of his parents.

“I never remember my parents speaking in a negative way about any group of people,” he says.

Straight out of law school, Grimm joined the Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore, working on paternity, child support, custody and divorce cases.

He then spent 13 years with the Child in Need of Assistance Project, an initiative of the bureau that grew from representing children in Baltimore’s dependency courts, to helping kids virtually statewide.

“I kept seeing the same problems recur,” says Grimm.  “That was the failure of the system to provide them with the enforcement that allowed them to grow.”

That led to the case that revamped Baltimore’s foster-care system but, after 17 years, Grimm says there’s been some “backsliding,” and expects to reopen the case in the next few months.

In 1988, Grimm was recruited to join the National Center for Youth Law, which he saw as an opportunity to create systemic change throughout the U.S.

“I felt like I’d learned a lot and felt like there were other places around the country where the system needed to change,” he says.

Focusing on foster children was a natural choice for Grimm, who says he wanted to have an impact on people who truly need help.

“This was a population that didn’t have very good advocacy,” he says.  “And I thought I could fill a void.  I have the prospect of helping thousands of children by being their advocate.”

Progress has occurred in some areas of the U.S., Grimm says, but there are still obstacles facing foster kids, including a lack of public understanding of foster children and parents.

A significant portion of the general population believes children are in foster care because of their own problems, Grimm says, and that foster parents take in children for the money.

For real and lasting change to occur, Grimm says, the public needs to be educated.

“We are competing with so many other interests that are so much better funded,” he says.  “We need to get the public to understand the system and support the system on a broader scale.”

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