July 01, 2015

Katherine Gomez: Parent Advocate and System Reformer

Kathryn Byers

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Kathy Gomez, managing attorney at the Family Advocacy Unit (FAU) at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, has advocated for the support, preservation, and reunification of low-income families for 15 years. Kathy has made the FAU a national leader in representing parents. She is a zealous advocate for her clients and works with others to reform the child welfare system for kids and families.

Tell me about your background and how it has shaped your work?

My mother was raised in India and my father in Colombia. They met in New York City and that’s where I was born. Being raised by parents of diverse religions and backgrounds was an enriching experience that has shaped my view on the importance of respecting and considering a variety of perspectives on issues. 

What drew you to child welfare?

I was always interested in social justice and knew I wanted to provide legal services for people with low incomes, but I didn’t think child welfare was my calling. Unfortunately, I also had some negative preconceived notions about these parents. Working with my first clients radically changed my perspective about these parents and children and the critical importance of the work. While no one wants to lose their house or job, those losses pale in comparison with the possibility of permanently losing your children and family. 

Most of my clients were single parents who deeply loved their children, but struggled with issues that affected raising their children safely and were further compounded by crushing poverty. Many were victims of abuse and trauma themselves and needed compassionate help. Most could parent with meaningful support. I saw how traumatic it is for children to be removed and how important it is to be raised by their families where possible. Lawyers can make a tremendous difference for these families and I became passionate about that.

What positions have you held in this field?

I started as an Equal Justice Fellow for two years. Then I rose through the ranks at Community Legal Services as a staff attorney, a supervising attorney, and now I am a managing attorney at the FAU where we represent several hundred parents a year. 

What one experience shaped how you think about reunification?

Two moments have stuck with me. The first was interviewing a parent who was deaf and finding out he was struggling to understand parenting classes taught by an instructor who couldn’t sign and wasn’t provided an interpreter. The other was representing a mother who was undocumented and had limited English proficiency. Her immigration status was raised in the petition and in her mental health evaluations and she was having trouble accessing services. 

In both cases, I felt the children should not have been removed. They desperately wanted to go home. I learned how important it was to understand your client’s situation and needs, to advocate zealously that they be provided the right help in an accessible way, and to ensure issues unrelated to child safety are not inappropriately influencing the case. Too often the parent or family has been mismatched to a service intended to help with the process. The parents of course are blamed when services fail. 

What are some strengths of the child welfare system in your area?

One strength is the communication between stakeholders, the child welfare agency, and court leadership. At several meetings, including our local children’s roundtable meetings, issues are discussed and the focus is problem solving. There is an acknowledgement that we have to collaborate transparently to improve practices and outcomes for families. 

We also have adjudication hearings early in the case and 90-day review hearings, which help ensure issues are addressed in individual cases without delay. 

The Achieving Reunification Center (ARC) also helps parents receive services they need be it parenting classes, a place for supervised visits, a treatment facility, or job assistance. 

What are some weaknesses?

There are too many children in placement and the reunification rate hovers in the 50% range. The removal rate should be lower and the reunification rate should be much higher. Poverty plays too large a role in all aspects of child welfare cases, including preventing reunification. 

For example, many families receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance to help support their families. When their children are removed, TANF ends as well. The sudden loss of TANF impedes parents’ ability to reunify with their children because it predictably leads to a loss of basic needs like housing, utilities, and transportation. Families have the economic rug pulled out from under them at an extremely vulnerable time. TANF should continue while parents work on reunification and other economic supports should be provided, rather than taken away, to help families reunify.

Describe some efforts you have made to improve child welfare practice in your area?

Some key efforts are: 

  • Worked to move my office’s practice towards a holistic model, where most cases have a lawyer and social worker or paralegal team who represents clients at all stages, especially between hearings. 

  • Helped create and provide input on numerous policies to improve local and statewide child welfare practices, including a policy about interpretation issues for families where a parent or child is deaf or hard of hearing (in response to the type of cases I described earlier). 

  • Helped draft standards of practice for parent and child attorneys in Pennsylvania that have now been approved by the PA Children’s Roundtable. 

None of these accomplishments were mine alone nor would they be possible without joint efforts by talented colleagues in my office and other agencies who believe in systemic advocacy and community education as a vehicle for change. 

What one thing do you recommend to increase the likelihood of reunification?

Visitation is a powerful predictor of successful reunification, so parents should do everything to maximize the time they spend with their children and make that time meaningful. Their child needs them emotionally and maintaining and strengthening the parent–child bond is critical to reunification. 

What advice would you give other child welfare professionals or those considering working in child welfare?

I have four pieces of advice to child welfare professionals or those considering this work:

Recognize and resist the urge to practice in a defensive and reactionary way. It doesn’t help children, it harms children. It’s understandable to worry that the media or some watchdog group will single out your actions as imprudent in hindsight if something should go wrong. However, removing a child when it’s not clearly necessary and reunification delays harm children. 

We have to move away from the idea that parents must be able to parent completely by themselves forever without supports from family and community services. Often we see children removed where in-home or family supports would have allowed them to stay safely with their family. It is troubling when such rigid thinking harms a family with a loving parent who has some cognitive limitations or other issues that require periodic or ongoing support.

Visitation is a child’s right, a child’s need, it is not just a parent’s right. Research shows visits help children in a variety of ways. Child welfare professionals and lawyers for children should be advocating for more visitation in most cases. Those working in child welfare should routinely question policies or actions that treat the parents and children in the child welfare system differently than we would our own families when it comes to visitation and other issues. 

Resist approaching cases as parent v. child. We do not help children when we vilify their parents and fail to help to become healthy, safe parents without delay. Even in cases where a child does not reunify, we know many of these children seek out their biological families in the future for connection, so efforts to help parents are important, even when reunification is not achieved. 

What advice would you give judges, agency directors, and politicians about improving the system?

If I could change federal and state policies to improve outcomes for families, I would suggest:

Change the permanency hierarchy to reflect the reality that children seek a connection to their biological families even when raised in other loving permanent homes. Biological parents are more likely to agree to permanency arrangements that do not require permanently severing their relationship to their children. The permanency hierarchy should be: reunification, permanent guardianship, open adoption and so on. Closed adoption should be a last resort, not the second option as it is now. 

Offer further guidance and definition of “reasonable efforts.” The lack of clarity often translates into the bare minimum and judges are reluctant to enter a finding of no reasonable efforts because of the financial penalty. Rather than allowing for creativity, the lack of definition has had the opposite effect.

All parents in child welfare proceedings should have the right to counsel at all stages, if they cannot afford counsel, and there should be adequate funding for parent representation. The gravity of the consequences, the constitutional issues and the vulnerability of most parents affected call for this. 

Maintain TANF benefits after removal while a family is working towards reunification. In cases where benefits have ended, restart the benefits 60 days before reunification. Washington State is a great example of where a similar plan is working; it should be in every state. Similarly, don’t pursue child support if it would make reunification more difficult.

What programs and practices are most effective in helping parents reunify?

  • Concrete, hands-on parenting classes where a parent can develop their skills with their own child and receive coaching. 

  • Trauma-informed therapy with a therapist who can work with the parent regularly with ideally no turnover. 

  • Inpatient parent-child substance abuse and mental health treatment programs that allow the parent to bring their children with them are also on the top of my list. 

  • Practices that schedule meetings between parents and foster parents regularly and build that relationship and practices that allow for frequent, least restrictive visitation between parents and children are effective. 

Are there programs/practices that are not effective and need to be changed? 

Many families struggle with substance abuse, yet the child welfare and drug and alcohol treatment systems don’t always work well together. Some areas lack programs or funding to offer the depth and length of treatment that is required to improve the likelihood of recovery. There is great opportunity here to help families if cross training, collaboration, and gaps in services are improved.

Parent capacity evaluations need to be scrutinized by advocates and judges to ensure they are consistent with research and evaluate a parent’s ability for parenting. Parenting capacity assessments that rely on IQ, involve a parent with limited literacy filling out tons of multiple choice questions, or simply observe the parent only without observing them with her child are troubling. 

Kathryn Byers, JD candidate 2016, is a legal intern at the ABA Center on Children and the Law.

Read Kathy Gomez’s complete interview and other reunification month hero interviews at www.ambar.org/reunificationmonth