December 4, 2023
By: Nyla Campbell and Kate Lovas, UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee Co-Chair

We had the privilege of conversing with Kristin Henning, a trailblazer in youth advocacy. As a recognized figure in the fight for children's rights, she graciously shared insights into her journey, offering a glimpse into her unwavering commitment to the well-being of children. Finding inspiration and a guiding force is crucial in pursuing justice for children. Professor Henning's story unveils a narrative of passion, dedication, and relentless devotion to youth advocacy. Join us as we explore the transformative moments and impactful initiatives that have shaped her career. 

Professor Henning's journey into youth advocacy began during her time in law school, where she encountered a mentor who would leave an indelible mark on her career—Jean Koh Peters, a distinguished specialist in child advocacy. Peters' compassion, subject matter expertise, and unwavering dedication became a source of inspiration for Professor Henning. Their connection spurred a desire to contribute meaningfully to children's welfare, although the path ahead remained uncertain. Guided by Peters' influence, Professor Henning entered the legal arena committed to youth advocacy. The realization that there was a need for representation in delinquency cases became a pivotal moment in her journey. Because her law school professors encouraged students to be leaders and address the gaps in representation, Professor Henning began her 26-year career advocating for children's rights. 

Faced with the stark reality of the racial disparities in the justice system, she recognized the urgent need to address racial biases within the legal system. The challenge of continuing the work without addressing the broader racial justice issues became too significant to ignore. Professor Henning's commitment led her to engage in direct representation and policy reform, training, and research to tackle the racial justice issues associated with youth advocacy. In her workshops on recognizing biases, Professor Henning acknowledges the resistance in the room and understands that some individuals may be unaware of their biases. She advocates for collaboration and finding common ground, urging a collective effort to identify and address biases within the system. Her aim is to reduce resistance and foster a deeper understanding of children's shared experiences, regardless of race and class. 

Professor Henning’s commitment extends beyond direct representation, as evidenced by her collaboration with the Gault Center to develop and host the Juvenile Training Immersion Program (JTIP), now known as YDAP. This program, born out of a critical need for specialized training in representing children, aims to equip youth defenders with essential knowledge and skills, emphasizing that “every child needs a childhood.” She also collaborated with the Gault Center to develop the Racial Justice Toolkit for youth defenders, making another tangible impact in challenging racial inequities within the juvenile legal system. Discussing her leadership role in youth advocacy, Professor Henning drew parallels to experiences in international human rights by emphasizing the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in addressing global challenges faced by children. 

She sees racial justice as the most pressing challenge concerning the future of juvenile justice. Addressing the significance of race in legal questions is imperative for dismantling biases, and there is a need for laws and interpretations that account for the realities of race in society, offering a pathway to a more equitable juvenile justice system. Kristin Henning's journey is a testament to the transformative power of mentorship, the importance of proactive leadership, and the necessity of addressing racial justice in youth advocacy. Her unwavering dedication to the well-being of children and commitment to challenging biases have made her a guiding light in pursuing justice for the most vulnerable members of society.

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