Reimagining Youth Justice & Child Welfare

At the LA Times Festival of Books 3 gifted authors talked about foster care & youth justice. Here’s a look at what they said.

Authors Jeff Hobbs, Emi Nietfeld, David Ambroz, and moderator Celeste Fremon at LATFOB
Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On Saturday and Sunday of this past weekend, the University of Southern California hosted the LA Times Festival of Books, a two day extravaganza that celebrates books of all kinds, for all ages, and also lets those who attend get to know their favorite authors, and be introduced to new potential favorites.   Started in 1996, it has become the largest literary and cultural festival in the nation.

I have often had the good fortune to be involved with this joy-producing yearly event. This year, I moderated a panel which featured three spectacular writers whose books each illuminate elements of the nation’s foster care system and/or the world of youth justice.

Although the LATFOB is over, the panel’s three gifted authors—along with their books—are very much worth your time and attention.

(In fact they were so good on Sunday that our event’s proctor and timekeeper stunned everyone by extending the hour long event another fifteen minutes, in order that enthusiastic audience members could continue to ask questions.)

These must-read authors are as follows:

David Ambroz, author of A Place Called Home 

In David Ambroz’ beautifully written memoir,  A Place Called Home, he tells of growing up with his mentally ill mother in poverty so severe that he and his two siblings bounced with her from camping out in temporary apartments they knew they couldn’t afford for long, to various shelters, to dangerous nights on icy NYC streets in the dead of winter.  

Yet, it wasn’t just poverty that threatened the three kids’ physical safety. 

Due to David’s  mother’s illness she was often  physically abusive to her children to a terrifying degree.  In David’s case, she came perilously close to killing him when he was eleven.  His injuries when she pushed him down a flight of stairs were bad enough that a few officials finally paid enough attention to remove David to the safety of the foster care system.

David’s subsequent years in various foster homes were also often alarmingly unsafe, and laced with physical and emotional abuse.

 Making David’s life less safe still, he also began to be targeted for being gay.  

Yet, this painful,  incandescently written, big-hearted book doesn’t end there. 

We accompany David as he manages to emancipate from the child welfare system a year early, then get himself accepted to Vassar College.

And there were many more victories, including interning at the White House under Bill Clinton, and eventually getting his Juris Doctor at UCLA’s School of Law.

Now David Ambroz is a nationally known poverty and child welfare expert and advocate, who had Sunday’s audience repeatedly applauding as he told the crowd what needs to change if we are to help the nation’s children who wind up in foster care.

“We are the government,” he reminded us.

Ambroz has been recognized by former President Barack Obama as an American Champion of Change, and now is a Head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.  Prior to Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television, and has also served as president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission as well as a California Child Welfare Council member.

He is also a devoted foster dad living in Los Angeles. “But I am forever a foster kid,” he writes.

So, David reminds us, are many others, including such people as: Steve Jobs, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Tina Turner, George Lopez, Eddie Murphy, Tolstoy, and more whose names you know well.

Among those forever foster kids is author Emi Neitfeld.


Emi Neitfeld, author of Acceptance, A Memoir

Emi Neitfeld’s childhood was both similar and very different from that of David Ambroz.

In her luminously written memoir, Acceptance, Emi narrates being thrown first into psych wards, then into foster care due to the inability of her hoarding, manipulative, emotionally injured-and-injurious mother to care for her.  

In an account written with humor—and insight sharp as broken glass—we see Emi on the receiving end of various kinds of abuse by the array of officials and systems that should have helped her, but instead treated her as if her emotional wounds were somehow her fault. 

When, to cope with her emotions, she cut herself, or forced herself to vomit after eating, she was given medication, instead of therapy and/or other forms of emotional support and healing.  When she wanted to take AP classes in order to improve her future, since few around her seemed interested in being proactive in her behalf, her foster parents and others told her not to set her goals too high.  

Emi ignored the advice and, while homeless and living out of her car, wrote the needed essays to apply to Ivy League universities.  She was accepted at Penn, Wesley, and Harvard.  She said yes to Harvard, her dream school.

Yet, even after hitting those and and a list of other impressive marks, Emi found that, though admissions officers and givers of scholarships were impressed by her tale of plucky “resilience,” many were discomforted by the considerable trauma that could not help but be caused by years of harm done.  They preferred, it seemed, their victims-turned-hero’s to be  “hurt in just the right way.” 

Over time, Emi found her own paths to healing, which included women’s heavyweight rowing, and rebooting her love of writing, and her unique writer’s voice.

After graduating from Harvard in 2015, she worked as a software engineer, then wrote about the experience in a much forwarded New York Times essay titled, “After Working At Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again.”

Her essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and noted in The Best American Essays. And her growing body of work continues to appear in such publications as The Atlantic, Teen Vogue, Fortune, Vice, Longreads and more.

Bottom line: We urge you to buy Emi Neitfeld’s Acceptance, and then keep this prodigiously talented writer’s future work on your reading radar.

This brings us to Sunday’s third panel member.


Jeff Hobbs, author of Children of the State:  Stories of Survival and Hope in the Juvenile Justice System.

To create this wonderfully written and deeply researched volume, Children of the State, Jeff Hobbs spent more than three years immersing himself in the world of the youth justice system, from three different perspectives.

The book that resulted reads like three nonfiction novellas, each of which follows different kids within three different facilities and youth justice programs.  

In the first section, Jeff writes of the Ferris School, the only youth residential detention facility in the state of Delaware. 

The second section takes place inside San Francisco’s Woodside Learning Center, which serves the kids locked up in SF’s Juvenile Justice Center, a youth jail for kids waiting to be adjudicated.

Finally, Jeff takes us inside Exalt Youth in New York City, which has become a model reentry and diversion program for kids who’ve had “serious contact with the legal system.”

In all three sections, we meet and become attached to various young people and those who work with them. There is victory, and also heartbreak, as the author bears witness to a system that in so many essential ways is devastatingly broken.

“Every paragraph,” Jeff writes in the book’s epilogue, “was written to cast some angle of light into the somewhat impermeable spaces of the American justice system as it pertains to American children, and the way the human spirit adapts to and evolves within those spaces.”

The result is an emotionally engaging story in three parts that is also an informative and necessary work of literature.

In addition to Children of the State, Jeff Hobbs, who lives in Los Angeles, is the author of a list of other stellar books including The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, which deservedly won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2015

He is now at work on a new reporting project.

So, stay tuned.

In the meantime, please pick up any or all of these wonderful books.  

You won’t be sorry.

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