Maria Woltjen

Maria Woltjen

Lecturer in Law, Executive Director of The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights

Maria Woltjen is the founder and Executive Director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago Law School. The Young Center is a national organization that advocates for the best interests of unaccompanied immigrant children. These are children from all corners of the world—Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, India, China, Romania, Somalia. They are apprehended as they cross the border and then detained around the country. The federal government appoints the Young Center to serve as a Child Advocate—similar to a guardian ad litem—for the most vulnerable of these children. The Young Center now has offices in Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, and Harlingen, Texas. Throughout her 30 years as an attorney, Ms. Woltjen has focused on children’s rights, at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the ChildLaw Center at Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, and for the past ten years at the University of Chicago Law School. Ms. Woltjen’s focus is on reforming the immigration system—in which children are treated as adults—into a justice system that recognizes children as children, with rights and protection needs all their own. Ms. Woltjen is the recipient of the American Constitution Society 2013 Ruth Goldman Award and the 2017 UNICEF Chicago Humanitarian Award.


Loyola University of Chicago School of Law
JD, 1987

  • Executive editor, lead articles, Loyola University of Chicago Law Journal, 1986-1987
  • American Jurisprudence Award, Juvenile Law, 1987

University of Illinois at Chicago
BS in biology, 1978-1982


The University of Chicago Law School
Lecturer in law, August 2005-present 

Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights 
Director, December 2003-present

Loyola University of Chicago Law School
Adjunct Faculty, Child Law Center, September 2001-December 2003

Loyola University Center for Urban Research and Learning
Fellow, 2001-2002

Health and Disability Advocates Chicago, IL
Consultant, 2000

DePaul College of Law
Visiting Assistant Professor, Legal Clinic, August 2000-August 2001

Juvenile Justice Center of the American Bar Association Washington, D.C.
Consultant, 1997-2000

Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc.
Director, Children's Advocacy Project, 1991-1996

Coffield, Ungaretti, Harris & Slavin Chicago, IL
Litigation Attorney, 1987-1991

Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. Chicago, IL
Public Interest Law Initiative Fellow, 1987

Journal Articles

  • "Product Warnings in the Marketplace," 17 Brief 12 (1988) (with J. Timothy Eaton). cu
  • Comment, "Regulation of Informed Consent to Human Experimentation," 17 Loyola University Chicago Law Journal 507 (1986). cu

Other Publications

  • Best Interests of the Child Standard: Bringing Common Sense to Immigration Decisions, (First Focus). 2015) (with Jennifer Nagda). www
  • "CHA: An Advocate's Success Story," Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition Newsletter, Fall 1996.
  • "Jailing Chicago's Wayward Children," Chicago Tribune, September 11, 1994. www
  • "Detaining Nonviolent Youth Is Ineffective," Chicago Sun-Times, February 6, 1994.

“Rights Based Advocacy for Unaccompanied and Separated Children,” University of Sydney, 28 November 2012

“The Rights of Children in the Context of International Migration” Growing up Undocumented in America Conference at Loyola University School of Law, 12 October 2012

“Sale of Children for Labor” UNHCR Committee on the Rights of the Child, 18 June 2012 

“Sex Trafficking from Boardroom to Classroom: Prevention, Intervention & Prosecution,” American Bar Association Section of International Law-International Human Rights Committee Human Trafficking Series, 10 January 2012 (moderator)

“Plenary Panel: Case Studies and Collaboration,” Protecting Children’s Rights Through Multidisciplinary Forensics Conference at Loyola University School of Law, 4 November 2011

“No Opting Out: the Trafficking of Chinese Children for Labor,” Cook County Trafficking Conference, 24 August 2011

“Street Level View of U.S. v. Arizona,” University of Chicago Law School, 8 April 2011 (panelist) 

“Competency Issues for Immigrant Children,” On Their Own: the 5th Annual Conference on Unaccompanied Immigrant Children, 9 December 2010

“Trafficking of Chinese Children for Labor,” National Conference: Human Trafficking and Exploitation of Children and Youth in the United States, 23 September 2010

“Best Interest Determinations: Current Tools and Applications,” Practical Considerations: The Nexus of Social Work and Law in International Child Welfare, 31 October 2009 (panelist)

“The Immigrant Child Advocacy Project: Guardians ad litem for Unaccompanied Children,” Chief Judge and Staff of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, 14 September 2009

“Utilizing UNHCR BID Guidelines: BID Panels for Cases in U.S. Immigration System,” On Their Own 2009 Conference, 8 October 2009

“House of Secrets: Unraveling the Stories of Immigrant Children in Detention,” Society for Asylum and Immigration Law at DePaul Law School, 17 February 2009; Harvard Immigration Project, 30 November 2007

“Legal Service Models for Children,” Unaccompanied Children Pro Bono Project 2008 Annual Conference, 8 December 2008

“Making the Guidelines on Determining the Best Interests of the Child Operational,” Conference on the Protection of Unaccompanied and Separated Children, 23 October 2008

“Immigrant Children in the United States,” The Human Toll of a Broken System: Current Immigration Policy and its Impact on Families, Youth, and Agencies, 16 October 2009

“Immigrant and Refugee Children Alone in the US: Case Work Issues and the Law,” Loyola University, 27 September 2008

“Child Advocacy for Immigrant Children,” Crossroads: Addressing the Humans Services Needs of the Immigrant and Migrant Populations (IBM International Social Services Forum), 17 September 2008

“Human Rights Issues and the Innocent: The Challenges Faced by Immigrant and Refugee Children,” Dean’s International Council Meeting at University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, 9 May 2008

“Public Policy, Advocacy, and Fundraising for Local Nonprofits: The Experience of Immigrant Integration Organizations in Chicago,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 7 May 2008 (roundtable participant)

“Immigration Relief for Immigrant Children,” Cook County Juvenile Court, 6 May 2008

“Trafficking Trends,” Freedom Network Conference, 24 April 2008 (panelist)

“Toward Safe Repatriation,” On Their Own: Protecting the Rights of Immigrant Children, 4 April 2008 (panelist and moderator)

“Advanced Legal Issues on the Intersection of Immigration and Child Welfare Law,” Second National Forum on the Intersection of Immigration and Child Welfare, 1 April 2008 (panelist)

“Myth v. Fact: Illegal Immigrants are ‘Freeloading’ on American Taxpayer Dollars to Support Their Families,” Public Interest Law Review Symposium, 29 January 2008 (panelist)

“Immigration Reform: Best Interests for Immigrant Children,” Northwestern University School of Law, 16 October 2007 (panelist)

“Building the Movement to Help Unaccompanied Immigrant Children,” On Their Own: The Second Annual Conference on Unaccompanied Immigrant Children, 17 May 2007 (plenary panelist)

“Children in Detention,” 2007 Detention Watch Network Conference, 28 April 2007 (panelist)

“Issues and Remedies for Immigrant Children,” Legal Protections for Battered Immigrants, 16 November 2006 (panel coordinator and panelist)

“In the Best Interests of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children,” Migration, A Critical Issue for Child Welfare: A Transnational Research and Policy Forum, 24 July 2006 (panelist)

“Mental Health Issues and Concerns,” Unaccompanied Children Pro Bono Outreach Program Annual Gathering at Vera Institute for Justice, 19 June 2006 (panel moderator)

“Ethical Challenges and the Role of Guardians in Representing Child Clients,” Non-Citizen Children on their Own: Bi-national Conference on Procedures, Protections & Due Process for Unaccompanied Immigrant Children at University of Texas El Paso, 22 April 2006 (panelist)

“Who Speaks for the Child? Deciphering Relationships in the Representation of Unaccompanied Children,” American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, 13 April 2006 (teleconference panelist)

“Best Practices for Working with Children and Youth in Criminal Cases,” Fourth Annual Freedom Network Conference, 15 March 2006 (panel moderator)

"Best Interests for Unaccompanied Immigrant Children in the United States," Psychology Department of University of Illinois at Chicago, April 2005

"Report on Guardian ad Litem Program for Unaccompanied and Separated Immigrant Children in the United States," Office of Refugee Resettlement of Department of Health and Human Services, April 2005

"Creating a Guardian ad Litem Program for Unaccompanied Immigrant Children," Conference on Unaccompanied Immigrant Children at Office of Refugee Resettlement of Department of Health and Human Services, June 2004

"Facilitating Community Organizing to Combat Lead Poisoning," National Center for Healthy Housing Conference, May 2003

"Community Efforts to End Lead Poisoning," National Lead Abatement Action Council Conference, November 2002

"Community-University Partnerships to Eliminate Lead Poisoning," National Lead Safe Housing and Environmental Health Conference, June 2002

"Interface between the Justice System and Adolescent Pregnancy," Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Conference at Public Health and Education Association Midwest, April 1997

"Lengthy Pre-Trial Detention of Minors in Appeal Cases," Testimony, State Legislative Committee on Juvenile Justice, February 1995

"Training the Child Advocate," National Institute of Trial Advocacy, January 1995

"Advocacy Strategies in Adolescent Health Care," First Annual Statewide Conference on Adolescent Health, November 1994 (panelist)

"Proposed Automatic Transfer Laws," Testimony, Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee, April 1994

"Public Housing Automatic Transfer Law Overrepresentation of Minorities," Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, April 1994

"Transfer of Juveniles to Adult Criminal Court," Seventh National Conference on Children and the Law, April 1994

"Proposed Automatic Transfer Laws," State of Illinois Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice and Prisoner Review Board, October 1993 (testimony)

"Transfer of Juveniles Overrepresentation of Minorities in the Juvenile Justice System," Solovy Commission, July 1993 (testimony) 

Memberships and Professional Affiliations

  • Co-chair, Public Policy Committee, Migration and Child Welfare National Network (April 2008-present)
  • National Immigrant Justice Center Leadership Council (January 2004–present)
  • Illinois Task Force on Unaccompanied Immigrant Children (January 2004-present)
  • Washington, D.C. Working Group on Unaccompanied Immigrant Children (January 2004-present)