As a child, 2L Jessica Valadez spent a lot of time taking care of her younger siblings. While her parents, who had immigrated to Los Angeles from El Salvador, were busy working multiple jobs, six days a week, she cooked, cleaned and kept a watchful eye. Shouldering those immense responsibilities motivated her to dedicate her career to advocating for children and youth.
“I didn’t realize the impact my childhood experiences had on me until I started working with children in foster care after college,” she says. “As a woman of color who grew up in similar circumstances to many kids who need help, I am committed to spending my life promoting child welfare.”
Several recent accolades will help Valadez put her passion into practice. As a recipient of the Bergstrom Child Welfare Law Fellowship, she will take part in a two-day training in youth law at University of Michigan Law School in May. “I’m looking forward to meeting other professionals in the field and learning more about this substantive area of the law,” she says.
This month, Valadez was awarded a Hastings Public Interest Law Foundation Summer Grant (HPILF), which will provide financial support for her summer clerkship working on juvenile delinquency cases at the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office. She also received a 2018 Equal Justice Works Public Interest Award in recognition of her work serving vulnerable populations as a law student. “My parents sacrificed so much for me to be able to pursue my goals. I am working hard to make them proud,” she says.
One of the most rewarding components of that work has been her role as co-president of the Hastings Association of Youth Advocates (HAYA). In March, she organized an event that brought fifth-grade students from the Tenderloin’s De Marillac Academy to sit in on moot court practice at Hastings and meet a magistrate judge at the district court. “As a first-generation American, I don’t think I met an attorney until I went to college,” Valadez says. “My hope is that these kids see law students who are like them and think, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.'” Through HAYA, Valadez also organized a Youth Law Career Panel that brought Hastings alums working in the field to campus and applied to become an advocate for foster children in the San Francisco Unified School District.
Valadez knew she wanted to go to law school ever since she shadowed an uncle who is a court interpreter. But after studying political science and French at Loyola Marymount University, she delayed her studies for nine years to work and pay off her undergraduate debt with stints as an investigator for the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles and in the events department at the California Endowment.
In 2016, she enrolled at UC Hastings, drawn in by its financial package, location in San Francisco, and proximity to the city’s courts. In her first year, Valadez won the California Bar Foundation Diversity Scholarship and worked as a legal intern in child and family services at the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office. “At first I was nervous, but it was a wonderful experience-they trusted me to handle a bench trial on my own,” she says.
Valadez also served the local community through the Individual Representation Clinic, helping a father expunge a misdemeanor from his record and a homeless man with severe mental illness gain Social Security benefits.
Next year, Valadez plans to found a student organization called Hastings First Generation Professionals to create career development opportunities for students who were the first in their families to go to law school. After she graduates, her dream is to launch a project advocating for access to mental health care for youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. “Childhood trauma is at the root of abuse, and it’s crucial to give these children ongoing assessments and mental health services,” she says.