Philanthropy Roundtable believes the American spirit has always been generous, with neighbor helping neighbor to uplift entire communities. To propel further investment in entrepreneurial approaches that strengthen communities, we are highlighting leaders and initiatives that cultivate civil society and support the values that transform lives.
Darcy Olsen founded Gen Justice, a nonprofit that works to mend the child protection system, with her seventh foster baby in her arms. “I’d seen too much injustice,” she said. “I had to believe there was a better way.”
Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute at the time, had just finished writing “The Right to Try: How the Federal Government Prevents Americans from Getting the Lifesaving Treatments They Need,” leading a successful drive for legislation that gave people with terminal illnesses the right to try investigational medicines. “I understood hope, and I wanted to bring it to the children who needed it most” she said.
For Olsen, that desire was deeply personal. She first became a foster parent in 2010, and recounted the experience, saying:
“We have newborns sleeping in offices,” the social worker told me. “If you could open a crib, we’d be thankful.” So, instead of fostering a teen as I’d planned, I left the hospital cradling an abandoned infant. In a few short years, I’d taken home 10. Unable to recover from the abuse he’d suffered, one of our babies lived just 56 days. I could not turn away from the brokenness.
“Foster care is not a Hallmark card,” Olsen said. “These children have suffered incest, starvation, torture and even trafficking at the hands of their own parents. [Sometimes] the horrors children suffer are such that the only remedy is to be removed to safety. That’s where Gen Justice comes in.”
In case after case, Olsen saw criminals with more constitutional rights and protections than their young victims. Those who harm children entered the courtroom represented by a court-appointed attorney, while the abused child entered alone. Several times, Olsen drained her personal bank account to hire private attorneys for the foster children in her care, so their rights could be represented.
“In America, rights shouldn’t depend on luck of the draw,” said Olsen. She vowed to remedy the injustice she had witnessed.
That’s when she founded Gen Justice, providing a unique pro bono Children’s Law Clinic that has served as a free legal lifeline for thousands of abused children. The organization’s work is multifaceted, operating on what it calls the “micro, macro and super-macro level” to support children and families:
Micro: Helping individual children in their court cases day in and day out in the Children’s Law Clinic, which provides emergency legal assistance and counsel to expedite their safety and passage to family. The impact of the clinic has been profound. One child, who needed a new name and identity for her safety, chose the name “Brittany,” after the Gen Justice attorney who protected her life.
Macro: Changing public laws and policies to protect abandoned and abused kids. Headquartered in Arizona, Gen Justice works to implement and test nonpartisan reforms, then shares this work nationwide, helping local communities tailor reform to their needs. Its reforms have been adopted in federal and state law.
Super-Macro: Those who harm children have a constitutional right to an attorney, a speedy trial and public hearings. Sadly, child victims have none of those basic protections. The organization’s public interest legal work, led by Tim Keller, formerly with the Institute for Justice, seeks to protect the interests of abandoned, physically or emotionally abused and trafficked children.
A major win for the organization came last year, when Gen Justice helped advance a state legislative reform giving an attorney to every child in foster care. Now, all abused children in Arizona will have an attorney to advocate for their legal rights, including timely hearings, placement with siblings and exiting the system expeditiously.
“Representation is a necessary first step to safety, justice and family,” Olsen said.
Many donors in the philanthropic community have high praise for Gen Justice’s work, including the Adolph Coors Foundation.
“Gen Justice is the gold standard for impact giving. It is a fierce advocate for our most vulnerable foster children, providing substantial and sustainable protections,” said Carrie Tynan, CEO of the Adolph Coors Foundation and Gen Justice board member.
The National Review also has recognized Gen Justice’s impact on mending the broken child protection system, saying, “Kids could have no better guardian angel.”
Moreover, Olsen and Gen Justice have been honored in multiple ways, including winning the inaugural Gregor G. Peterson Prize in Venture Philanthropy and receiving the national U.S. (United States) Department of Health and Human Services Adoption Excellence Award. The Gen Justice 2021 Annual Report can be found here. The organization is currently spearheading an end to the trafficking of young children, most of whom come from the foster care system. With a budget nearing $2 million, the organization has built a solid foundation with thousands of supporters nationwide. It has earned GuideStar’s platinum seal of approval every year since inception.
When Olsen heard the plea from a social worker to “open a crib,” she had no idea how many lives she would change. Thanks to Olsen’s tireless work and charitable support for this organization, Gen Justice is saving lives, supporting generational change, and protecting the basic constitutional interests of abandoned and abused children.
If you are interested in helping to accelerate this organization’s impact, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Esther Larson.