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Sarah Worthington may have come to the child welfare space from a non-traditional background, but her passion and willingness to serve others has always proven to be an asset to her community and clients. As a teenager, she spent time helping people experiencing homelessness and addiction, and as an adult she would first become a social worker passionate about community organizing and systemic advocacy alongside community court attorneys. This would propel Sarah into becoming an attorney within the child welfare space years later, where she provides legal representation as an advocate and empowers foster youth in Texas. Today, Sarah is the director of the Texas Foster Youth Justice Project (TFYJP) at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. The TFYJP provides legal support and guidance to current and former foster youth and to those who work with them.   

Children who are in child welfare have a lot of needs that go unmet, and when they leave the system, they often have no support. The Texas Foster Youth Justice Project is there to fill in the gaps and to provide support when they don’t have it. We generally prioritize removing barriers to independence: obtaining and correcting identification, resolving juvenile and criminal record issues, ensuring access to transitional and other public benefits, etc.

The support the TFYJP provides is essential to those putting their lives back together after they have left the child welfare system. Sarah is energized by that work.

Sarah grew up focusing on service, and a need to serve those around her is a significant driver of her work. When she was a social worker, Sarah saw that while the work she was doing wasn’t bad, it wasn’t meeting her clients’ needs. During her time in community court as a social worker, she saw that the community prosecutors and other attorneys did more than just work in the courtroom—they worked to improve the quality of the community. Consequently, going to law school wasn’t a passion project, it was a necessary means to get to Sarah's end—or rather, her legal beginnings.

Like so many attorneys, Sarah stumbled backward into her specialty. After two years as a licensed attorney, she had not done any direct representation and instead had been working at a public policy organization advocating for progressive criminal justice policies in Texas. At the time, Sarah didn’t know much about the child welfare system. But what she did have and could leverage was an introduction to a long-time children’s lawyer who became and remains an invaluable mentor: Mary Christine Reed, the long-time director of the TFYJP.

[Mary Christine Reed] has taught me to be an attorney, a leader, a manager, an instigator. I have learned so much from her about antagonizing systems and not stopping when things are hard. She has been such an inspiration. My practice is modeled after her. The way that I’m able to support my staff. The way that I approach supporting systemic reform is based on what she did and continues to do in her practice. The shoes that she left are so intimidatingly big. I’m so thankful that she trusted me to keep the project going. I admire her work ethic, kindness, fortitude, and tenacity. You wouldn’t be talking to me at all without all the work that she’s done. So thankful that I still have access to her all the time.

Having a strong mentor with a strong social work background made it possible for Sarah to pursue her work as an advocate for those affected by the child welfare system. It gave her confidence in her skills and judgment as an attorney, while also allowing her to meet her clients where they are and treat them as people with respect.

The thing that keeps Sarah going is connection and seeing her clients flourish after addressing their legal issues. Children don’t ask to be removed from their families, and a lot of them would rather stay as the systems that are set up to protect them often don’t. So, when Sarah receives a text years later from a former client who hasn’t had an open case for a long time, and they are just checking in to say all is well and they were just thinking about her, that’s a win. Legal representation and support that brings change can do real things for youth who are leaving systems’ involvement. Most importantly, Sarah's work can remind former foster youth they have value and are worth fighting for. And fight she does.

I’m not an attorney. I’m just a social worker with really sharp teeth.

Despite constantly facing a severe lack of options for youth with mental health struggles and a continual dearth of knowledge on the part of many actors in the child welfare system – from caseworkers to judges—Sarah and her team have been able to get innovative and creative in their solutions to some of the issues their clients have faced. Most recently, they had a client who discovered the consequences of an arrest years later after her background check was returned to a daycare center where she had just been hired and quickly fired. When she was 17 years old and in foster care, the client was arrested for a Class C misdemeanor, which is punishable only by a fine in Texas. Still, nevertheless, she spent a couple of days in jail, never saw a judge, and never signed any documents. She was never told what happened in the case or provided any documentation. When she was fired from the daycare, she discovered for the first time that she had been convicted of the offense for which she had been arrested. Sarah and her team consulted with several defense attorneys and utilized a writ of habeas corpus to get the underlying case set aside and then dismissed. They now have an expunction case open for the client, who is now eligible to work at a daycare and pursue her chosen livelihood.

Being an advocate for those who have experience with the child welfare system is not easy. But for those who are thinking of joining the field, Sarah would say it’s well worth it. She says it’s challenging when working with clients, but so many of them are incredibly sweet. She notes you need to be prepared to try and try again; text, don’t call; and that sometimes you’re going to get a “new phone, who dis” response. And even though the work is difficult and trying at times, she has some advice to help:

  • Talk to people in other areas of the law about tools that they commonly use.
  • Refer to other lawyers or advocates if a judge is being problematic for you specifically.
  • Always know the statutes, rules, and regulations at issue.
  • Connect with the advocacy organizations in your state and become familiar with who they are and how they can support you.
  • Know what resources and toolkits are out there to support your clients.
  • Create training opportunities and offer to facilitate training where it’s clear such trainings are needed.
  • Network with national organizations like “Think of Us.”

Lastly, Sarah says, “Call me.” She is here to support other attorneys because peer support and mentorship have been invaluable to her. Sarah knows that if she and other attorneys like her didn’t do this work, the system would become a black hole for young people without any options because often they do not have anybody else. She notes that she does not take the place of family and friends and she firmly holds those boundaries. Still, these young people need someone to help them remove the barriers to their success, and Sarah is not only there to help them but she’s also here to help other attorneys succeed.

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