This past summer, as part of a team of trial attorneys in the US Department of Justice (DOJ)’s Civil Rights Division, Nonny Onyekweli ’16 helped secure a major victory for children with disabilities and their families. In July, the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida held that Florida had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by keeping children with complex medical needs institutionalized in nursing facilities instead of providing Medicaid-funded services to allow them to live at home.
Working on the case, Onyekweli says, reminded her of her time as a fellow with NYU Law’s Policing Project in 2016. She served as a member of the Cleveland Police Federal Monitoring Team, overseeing reforms in policing policy after the 2014 killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police. Both the Cleveland position and the Florida case, she says, involved interviewing and learning from community members in order to create better policies.
“Working on this case feels like coming back full circle to my time at NYU [Law],” she says. In this Q&A, Onyekweli discusses her work on police reform and how her job as a trial attorney at the DOJ has given her the opportunity to pursue justice on a new scale.
Tell me about your involvement with the Policing Project. What projects did you work on?
My time in law school coincided with these really highly publicized acts of violence against the Black community by police: Tamir Rice was killed in 2014 and Mike Brown in 2014, and before that [was] the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. I started thinking a lot about our collective rage and pain and how it didn’t translate to actual justice, whether that meant repercussions for individual people or large-scale changes to policing policies. So I took the Policing Project externship at the Law School, and then I became a fellow for a year after I graduated.
My fellowship allowed me to serve as a member of the Cleveland Police Federal Monitoring Team. After Tamir Rice was killed in 2014, the DOJ launched an investigation which resulted in a consent decree between the City of Cleveland and the DOJ, where the city agreed to implement certain reforms to their police department. I was part of a team that oversaw the implementation of these reforms. My role was particularly focused on community engagement around policing policies.
What I liked about this work was being at the ground level and the initial implementation of the decree. The reform was just kicking off, so I got to be a part of early conversations about what reform would look like. I also had the opportunity to develop the early plans on how to get community input on proposed policies.
How did the fellowship impact your career aspirations?
After my fellowship with the Policing Project, I knew that I wanted to focus on civil rights litigation and policy. But in order to be an effective advocate in those spaces, I knew I wanted to develop complex litigation skills. I was a summer associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, so I returned to the firm and joined their complex litigation and trials practice.
Working at Skadden was intellectually stimulating and I learned how to manage large matters. After a few years, I wanted to apply my skills to civil rights issues and the opportunity arose to join the National Urban League, a storied civil rights and legal advocacy group that also has a great deal of federal policy influence. As the director of criminal justice in their recently launched a social justice wing, I was brought back to the work of the Policing Project. Again, I was working on a new team; we were developing norms and working hard to ensure we were advocating for policies that would make a difference.
While at the National Urban League, I worked on police reform issues and created the “21 Pillars for Redefining Public Safety and Restoring Community Trust.” The 21 Pillars served as a framework that cities and states could turn to as they evaluated their own policies. It also served as a blueprint that organizations could use to advocate for evidence-based police reform. The framework included reforms such as increasing investigations of police misconduct and civilian oversight, banning chokeholds and eliminating police presence in schools, and greater transparency in the public data regarding police misconduct and use-of-force.
After some time at the National Urban League, I realized litigation and policy change needed to work in tandem and I wanted to gain experience investigating and litigating civil rights matters. An opportunity to do this the national level with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice came up, and I thought it was the perfect fit.
What has your involvement looked like in this case? What does the ruling mean for Florida families?
Soon after I started at the DOJ, I joined the US v. Florida case team. The lawsuit challenged the State of Florida’s policies that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and resulted in children with disabilities living and growing up in nursing facilities, separated from their families, friends, and community. After almost a decade of litigation, including a two-week bench trial in May, the court found that the children in nursing facilities are capable of living in the community. [The court found that] their parents want them to live at home, but do not have a meaningful choice other than nursing facility placement [due to lack of resources to manage their child’s care]. The court also found that the way in which the state provides services puts many children with complex medical needs at risk of entering a nursing facility. During trial, the court heard from impacted families and several expert witnesses. My section rarely goes to trial, so from a professional development perspective, it was an exciting opportunity.
My role involved working closely with our fact witnesses to explain to the court what it is like to be the parent of a child with a complex medical need, trying to keep their kid at home but lacking the services their child needs to survive. Learning about the hardships this vulnerable population goes through was heartbreaking, but it helped us understand exactly why the services they were lacking were so integral. At trial I had the opportunity to direct examine several witnesses and cross examine several of the state’s witnesses.
It was an honor to work on a case that impacted hundreds of children in one state but also set a precedent that can be applied across the country. Children with disabilities deserve the same chance to grow up at home with their siblings and parents.
Following trial, the court entered an order requiring the state [of Florida] to make changes to its policies and service system. As we now work to carry out the court order, I am taken back to my days working with the Policing Project on the Cleveland monitoring team.
The DOJ’s ability to investigate civil rights violations, then litigate them or negotiate settlement agreements provides the opportunity for large scale policy change. It’s exciting to be a part of this world and I look forward to all the work and change I can effectuate.
Posted November 15, 2023. This interview has been edited and condensed.