David Shalleck-Klein '06 Wins Prestigious David Prize
Former public defender forms a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent unlawful separation of children from their parents.
IN OCTOBER, DAVID SHALLECK-KLEIN ʼ06 was named a winner of the $1 million David Prize, a philanthropic award evenly split between five New Yorkers who have “the grit and larger-than-life ideas to improve New York City,” as its website says.
Never heard of this prize? Neither had David until a community activist called him up and said: David, you should apply for the David Prize. “I thought she was messing with me by encouraging me to create a prize for myself,” he said. “I was confused.”
But within the hour, he had tossed his hat in the ring for the award, named after billionaire real estate developer David C. Walentas and run by The Walentas Family Foundation since its launch in 2019. When David applied for the prize in late 2021, he was a lawyer at The Bronx Defenders eager to create a civil rights organization dedicated to suing government agencies that illegally separate children from their parents. He pitched the idea in his application, founded the Family Justice Law Center in April 2022, and won his $200,000 share of the prize six months later. The money will be distributed over two years, no strings attached.
David, 35, discussed his career path and his new nonprofit group with Georgetown Days. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
HOW WILL YOU USE YOUR SHARE OF THE PRIZE MONEY?
This money is going directly into hiring civil rights litigators. I envision bringing lawsuits, mostly in federal court, that will make transformative changes in government practices that result in unnecessary family separation and surveillance—one of the most important yet misunderstood civil rights issues of our time. The constitutional violations occurring in this area are some of the worst in our country. We therefore need the best of the best to address them.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO CREATE THE FAMILY JUSTICE LAW CENTER?
During my second year at NYU Law, I was in a family defense clinic. For an initial assignment, we went to Brooklyn family court to observe the proceedings.
I was expecting to hear horrific cases of abuse and abandonment, like the ones that make the news. But instead, most of the allegations were about inadequate food, dirty clothing, being late to school, mental health issues, housing that was not up to code even though it was public housing. The overwhelming majority of cases were not about parents who didn’t love or care about their children, but rather about poverty-generated problems.
I was shocked that the government’s solution was to separate children from their parents and place them with strangers in foster care instead of providing services and resources needed by the families to address their underlying problems. I knew that family separation and surveillance were issues that I wanted to pursue.
YOU WERE ALREADY DOING FAMILY DEFENSE WORK AS A PUBLIC DEFENDER. WHY START A NEW ORGANIZATION?
Families need both defense and offense. Many vibrant organizations challenge various civil rights injustices in court, such as the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. But no organization in the city or the country did that kind of high impact affirmative litigation to protect families’ rights in the child welfare system. That void in advocacy led me to launch the Family Justice Law Center.
DID THE PUBLICITY SURROUNDING THE GOVERNMENT SEPARATING CHILDREN FROM THEIR PARENTS AT THE U.S. BORDER AFFECT YOUR GROUP’S MISSION?
That is one of two recent significant moments in the development of our organization. Those heart-wrenching screams of children being seized from their parents’ arms were nothing new to families affected by the child welfare system here in the United States. Community activists started campaigns to highlight that family separation happens in our own states, counties, and cities too–in neighborhoods with the highest percentages of Black and Brown residents and child poverty rates. The events at the U.S.-Mexico border ignited a national awakening. Human Rights Watch and the ACLU just released a report on the family separation crisis in the U.S. child welfare system, calling it a “national crisis warranting immediate attention and action.”
The murder of George Floyd also stimulated advocacy for families. The uprising in Black communities was not just that Black Lives Matter, but Black Families Matter, too.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR CONCERNS ABOUT THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM?
Across the country, 53 percent of Black children will be subjected to an investigation by government officials. These investigations, even if they don’t result in a removal, are harmful in and of themselves. They can lead to strip searches of children, invasive interrogations, government agents reading labels in medicine cabinets, rifling through drawers, opening refrigerators, and forcing these families to be subservient to their every demand. Many of these warrantless searches by government officials violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
There are also due process violations in family court, including horrendous delays in removal hearings.
DID YOUR EXPERIENCE AT GDS IMPACT YOUR CAREER CHOICES?
A major influence on my commitment to social justice, my love for learning and exploring, and my confidence to pursue my passions were my experiences at GDS. These ideals – woven into the ethos of the school – inspired me.
I came to GDS in the 9th grade, and it transformed my approach to thinking about education. By my senior year, school was no longer an obligation but a place of enjoyment, exploration, and expectation to harness and use my imagination for social good. I was most interested in the humanities and English— my time with [English teacher] Nina Prytula was especially transformative. But I also found joy in areas I knew I wouldn’t pursue, such as Bill Wallace’s biology class and Andy Lipps’s math class.
Of course, the magic of GDS extends beyond the classroom. It’s no surprise that I have remained life-long friends with my cohort at GDS and my professional career has been shaped by people who are alumni or closely-connected to the school.
WHO WITHIN THE GDS COMMUNITY MOST INFLUENCED YOUR CAREER PATH?
One of my close mentors is Congressman Jamie Raskin [’79]. He is a dear family friend. During my junior and senior years, I was intimately involved in his first campaign for Maryland State Senate. I knocked on doors with him after classes, handled emails and phone-banking, attended events, and visited every corner of the district with him. Congressman Raskin taught me about justice-focused campaigns that are committed to organizing, connecting with individuals, mobilizing, marching, and demanding change. He’s not only one of the smartest people I know, but also one of the most caring.
I majored in political science at Bates College, which was a natural outgrowth of my interest in the campaign, the humanities, and social justice. After graduating, I worked in public affairs in DC for three years, and found myself gravitating toward policy issues that had a legal component. I initially attended law school thinking I would return to politics, policy, or government work.
ARE YOU THE ORGANIZATION’S SOLE EMPLOYEE SO FAR?
Yes. But the organization was selected to be part of the Urban Justice Center’s accelerator program, which helps nonprofits get off the ground. The program has provided substantial support, including office space, back office support, IT support, and mentorship and training.
I also receive support from the Family Justice Law Center’s academic and community advisory boards. Right now, I’m largely focused on building relationships, forming partnerships, setting our priorities, and establishing the foundations for our lawsuits.
CAN YOU OFFER A SENSE OF IF/HOW THE DAVID PRIZE WILL HELP YOU SCALE?
We launched in April, before winning the David Prize, because the Urban Justice Center helps overcome many barriers to entry.
But the David Prize is a huge boost, not just because of the money. It serves as an imprimatur—a real stamp of credibility. I hope and expect that it is going to have a catalytic effect so that more foundations, corporations, law firms, individuals, and hopefully the GDS community will support us.
New York City
B.A., magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Political Science, Bates College, 2010
J.D., magna cum laude, Order of the Coif, New York University School Law School, 2016
Founder and Executive Director, Family Justice Law Center
A FAVORITE GDS MEMORY:
“[Former] GDS basketball coach Brian Bobo used to say: ‘To be early is to be on time. To be on time is to be late, and to be late is not to be.’ If one of us was not to be, it meant all of us were running. We ran a lot.”
BIG LIFE EVENT:
Birth of first child Francesca Alexy Klein on December 12, 2022 with wife Sophie.