Catherine Porter: Choosing public policy over law - Women's Foundation California

Catherine PorterBy Rose Larsen, Intern

Though Catherine Porter, a Bay Area lawyer, has long been an advocate for reproductive rights, for much of her career she worked in labor and employment law.

That all changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I began to really think about and understand the importance of preventing—not just curing—cancer, and the role of public policy in preventing toxic substances in our environment,” she said.

This past year, Catherine joined our Women’s Policy Institute’s Reproductive Justice team to fight for the passage of AB 2015 (Mitchell), a bill that would give arrested immigrant parents the right to arrange for the care of their children.

Also known as the Calls for Kids Act, this bill seeks to keep families together and children out of foster care. In California’s San Diego and Los Angeles counties alone, there are now some 1,500 children in foster care because their parents were either detained or deported.

More often than not, a simple call to a family member or a friend could have prevented the child entering the complex child welfare system.  (Read our blog post about AB 2015.)

The importance of language access

Catherine works at the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, a grant partner of the Women’s Foundation of California. At the Collaborative, Catherine researched laws related to language access, which is crucial in an industry dominated by Vietnamese and other non-English speakers.

By producing pamphlets and brochures about unsafe ingredients in nail salon products in Vietnamese and other non-English languages, the Collaborative can make sure that workers understand the health risks from the products they are exposed to. These products can contribute to allergies, reproductive harm and even cancer.

This experience came in handy as she worked on AB 2015, which requires information about parental rights to be posted in non-English languages in areas were arrestees are photographed, fingerprinted and jailed:

“One focus of the bill was to ensure that the notification of the right to arrange for the care of children was actually understood by non-English speakers,” Catherine said.

Working on a diverse team

“Our team was diverse in ethnicity, sexual identity and age,” Catherine said. “Each member brought different skills such as organizing, outreach, legal research and analysis. Our sets of skills were complimentary.” This diversity was key to forming a powerful, effective group.

The group initially struggled as they tried to understand the California penal code, which their bill amended. “Since none of us had ever worked on criminal justice issues, we all had a pretty steep learning curve,” Catherine said.

Ultimately, though, they were all able to work together and were rewarded with the bill passing 78-0 through the Assembly. That was a great victory.

This month, the bill also passed through the Senate Public Safety Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee and is now on the Senate floor. If it passes today (Monday, August 27, 2012), it will go to the Governor for his signature. [UPDATE: The bill passed out of Senate at 5:00 PM, August 27, and is now on its way to the Governor’s desk.)

A rewarding experience

Catherine found the whole experience extremely rewarding. Although she had experience working on public policy at the local level, this was her first time working at the state level in Sacramento.

And although she was at times discouraged by the lack of money at the state and local level to fund important policy goals, she was inspired by the women she worked with and the change that she was able to affect.

“I achieved my No. 1 goal, which was to work on actually developing a bill, including legal and other research and writing, policy analysis and drafting language. Working on public policy in Sacramento, I ended up with a much greater confidence in my abilities.”


Related Stories:

From Thief to Criminal Justice Advocate

Call for Kids Act Is Close to Becoming Law

Policy Advocacy: A Tool for School Equity

Challenging Inequities that Contribute to Poor Health

Lifting Media Ban Would Help Shine Light in Prisons

Congratulations, Monica Flores, Our Youngest WPI Fellow!

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