Janis Spire (MBA ’87) serves Los Angeles’ most vulnerable children by leading the Alliance for Children’s Rights.
By Emily DiFrisco
A staggering 28,000 children are currently in foster care in Los Angeles County—a statistic compounded by the number of adversities that this underserved population faces. Nearly half of all foster care children have learning disabilities or developmental delays, and 50 percent of youth who have aged out of foster care end up homeless or incarcerated.
Enter the Alliance for Children’s Rights. As an L.A.-based nonprofit, the Alliance protects the rights of impoverished, abused, and neglected children and youth by providing free legal services and advocacy.
At the helm is Janis Spire, who brought her sharp business acumen to the Alliance in 2002 as president and CEO, and has since tripled the organization’s staff, programs, and fundraising dollars.
Under her direction, the Alliance has brought to life a comprehensive education program for children from birth on up, expanded a children’s health and advocacy clinic, and sponsored legislation that extended foster to care to age 21, so that young adults could have a safety net while they pursue educational and professional goals.
Reflecting on her time at the Alliance and the countless stories of children they have served, Spire thinks of a young boy named Nathan*. He had spent the first two years of his life in a makeshift crib, drinking Pepsi from his baby bottle. By the time he was removed from the home, he was three years old, and a dentist had to pull out all of his rotten teeth.
“He couldn’t speak,” recalls Spire. “He knew he looked different from the other children in his preschool.”
After the Alliance advocated and paid for teeth implants for Nathan, he started thriving. He was adopted by his “forever family” on April 24, 2015. “It was a happy day in court,” Spire says. “He’s 5 years old now and such a character, talking and laughing. He’s a beautiful child.”
Another story centers on a young man who aged out at 18 before the law extending foster care benefits was put in place. John* was completely on his own at 18, but he dreamed of going to college and playing football. After struggling with community college, the Alliance introduced him to a mentor and helped him into housing. When he was accepted to a small school in Kansas on a football scholarship, the Alliance gave him winter clothes and supported him fully. Spire says John’s attitude is one of disbelief that they continue to help him when so many have failed him.
In order to help L.A.’s youth, the Alliance does the hard work of implementing laws that are already on the books. Spire says kids in foster care are frequently moved around and might attend five schools within one year, despite a law that gives them rights to remain in their school of origin. Often their credits aren’t transferred and they fall further behind.
In addition to helping kids stay in school, the Alliance continues to implement the law that extends foster care benefits to age 21.
“Rent in L.A. is so high that lack of housing and homelessness are the top barriers to our youth pursuing further education,” says Spire, who adds that at this time, only 45 percent of foster care youth graduate high school and fewer than three percent graduate college.
To accomplish much of their advocacy work, the Alliance relies on local attorneys.
“We have found that attorneys in the city are eager to do pro bono work,” Spire says of the 30,000 hours donated last year, which translates to more than 11 million dollars in legal fees. “They see the egregious ways that kids are overlooked and falling through the cracks. They see this is an opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life, whether by getting benefits turned on or finalizing an adoption. It’s some of the most rewarding work.”
Indeed the service aspect was the reason Spire transferred her career to the nonprofit sector in the 1990s. After a successful career in healthcare management and earning her MBA from Pepperdine, Spire brought her business expertise to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, an organization in its infancy with a staff of fewer than 10. At the time, she recalled advice from finance professor Darrol Stanley, who said simply, “Successful businesses plan.”
When she started at the foundation, she obliterated the stereotype that nonprofits think small or don’t need structure and planning. “You have to run a nonprofit like a business,” she says. “But it has to have a compelling mission. Your ROI is your impact and your work.”
By the time she left the foundation, it was a global organization with more than 100 employees.
When Spire was approached to lead the Alliance, she decided that it was time to bring her efforts to her own community. “I wasn’t sure whether I could do it, since the Alliance is a legal organization, but there was the business question of ‘how do you mobilize the community to support you?’”
Having led the Alliance to new heights, Spire continues to spearhead new initiatives such as early childhood development as a standard of care, prevention of abuse and neglect, and helping youth become job-ready. Ever tireless, Spire reflects, “I’m always turning over stones and asking ‘how can I take this further?’ There is so much work to be done, and I’m committed to doing it.”