Meet the KidsVoice Staff
Senior Staff Attorney Kristen Ornato works with KidsVoice clients with physical and intellectual disabilities, particularly to obtain social security and other benefits that they are entitled to. Kristen, who first moved to Pittsburgh with her family as a child, joined KidsVoice in 2014. A corporate lawyer for many years, she went on to earn her master’s in social work in 2013. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, son, and daughter (10 and 13, respectively), and an older brother.
You are our go-to specialist for clients needing assistance accessing social security and disability services due to them, but that wasn’t always your role. How did that shift happen?
“I had a client, I remember at the time, who called me because she got a bill from social security. She had no idea what the bill was for. She had never to her knowledge gotten supplemental security income (SSI). I had some contacts [at the social security office] from a previous job who I could lean in on to try to figure out why this client got a bill.
“So I investigated that and, from there, because that system is so complicated, it is something I fell into and just kind of developed. For that first client, her SSI was going to a prior caregiver and she had no idea. You’re not supposed to get SSI while in foster care. There’s a way to get that bill waived and I was able to do that, but it’s not something that is automatically done. And that wasn’t an isolated incident at that time.”
Your expertise is such a necessary corner of child advocacy that you were published in the National Association of Counsel for Children’s Red Book 4th Edition: Child Welfare Law and Practice, out this past January. Tell me a little more about this.
“The Red Book is a reference for social service and advocacy professionals to look at to help with their work with children in care. Initially it was just going to be a subchapter and then in discussions it became a whole chapter.
“[The process] was time-consuming but the intersection of social security and CYF is really kind of a niche that not a lot of people understand or even deal with. I had no idea how unique I was until I’d started attending conferences and I realized nobody else is doing this. It’s such a complicated process that in the chapter I tried to identify, very generically, the needs of these individuals, what you [social service professionals] should do, how you need to contact social security, and what supports you can put in place for these kids.”
You are very passionate about being an advocate and the work that you do. Has anyone inspired you?
“Because of my brother, who has Down Syndrome, I know it can be a pain to deal with these services, and it felt like this was a really good opportunity for me to be an advocate for those individuals with disabilities and their families.
“Also, my mom was a pretty cool lady, God rest her soul. She was an inspiration. She was a tireless advocate for all of her patients—she was a nurse practitioner at Children’s Hospital in the neurology department, among other things. And I’ve always been very passionate about helping individuals with disabilities. So, KidsVoice is a good mix of my passions as well as my skills. It is a good fit and makes my heart feel good.”
Thanks for sitting down with me today. It’s freezing outside, but it is theoretically spring now. What do you most look forward to this time of year?
“Sun. The sun. Also my birthday is in the spring. Right on the edge because it always snows on my birthday. But sun. And then spring means we’re closer to the summer and we’re trying to get a beach vacation together this year. I just like to sit and do nothing with the kids at the beach.”
Tom Welshonce, supervisor for one of our regional teams and the Expansion Team, joined KidsVoice in 2008. Raised in West Virginia, he moved to Pittsburgh to attend law school at Pitt, where he joined the Class of ’04. Tom lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two children. He marked his fifth anniversary as a supervisor last month.
You were recently named the Child Advocate of the Year by the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Children's Rights Committee. How do you feel?
“I remember thinking, ‘Why me?’ There are so many other people who are so deserving of this. But it really did make me feel proud to accept an award like this on behalf of my teams and the office because the work that we do is incredible. I’m not at the magistrate’s or in juvenile court every day, but I get to play a part in all of that. I’m proud of the really great work that we all do.”
In addition to supervising two teams and your direct work with our clients, you have also been working on some special projects. Can you tell me about that?
“I’ve taken on a role with a lot of our appellate work. Some of those cases, like the case I was recently fortunate enough to argue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, are cases where we have represented the child throughout the case that’s being appealed.
“There are other cases that involve children who we do not represent, and in several of those cases over the last few years, I have assisted with writing amicus briefs to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Superior Court, and even one brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Our goal in submitting these briefs is to give the appellate courts a perspective they might not otherwise have for the case and to understand that the decision in that particular case could have far-reaching consequences beyond the individual parties to the case. This work involves coordination with a lot of different people. For example, for one case, we wanted to share the psychological impact that a decision could have on children across the Commonwealth, so we sought out child psychologists from across the country to help us inform the court about the significance of the issue.”
You also do community outreach with our older youth. Why is that so important?
“Part of the reason outreach is important to me is because I want to make sure that our current and former dependency clients understand that we remain available to them well beyond the time that they age out. We know that a very minor legal issue, like a traffic ticket, can snowball into a major issue that can have collateral consequences that can totally disrupt a young person’s life. Much of that is preventable. We want to make sure that young people know that they can reach out to us when they face these issues so that we can help them resolve the issues and that they don’t become barriers to housing, employment and education.”
What is something that has improved in the dependency system since you began?
“We’re fortunate in Pennsylvania to have a ‘normalcy law’ that allows youth in foster care and congregate care the opportunity to engage in normal, age-appropriate activities, like sleepovers, extracurricular activities and employment, without needing to get permission from CYF or the court.
“I remember several years ago–before the normalcy law existed–we had a teenage client in foster care who was part of his school’s basketball team. After the games, the team would all meet up at one of the player’s homes to hang out and eat pizza. Our client, who was a really good kid, was not allowed to attend these post-game events unless everyone in attendance got a background check and submitted clearances to CYF. Our client was much too embarrassed to ask his friends to go through that, so he missed out on this normal, age-appropriate activity. We can’t go back to that.”
And, lastly, what brightens up the cold winter months for you?
“I love the snow. We, as a family, like to sled-ride. A couple years ago we found the perfect sled-riding hill. It’s just really long and not too steep and you can really get going. It’s lots of fun.”
Joanna Johnson, the second longest-serving employee at KidsVoice, is celebrating her 23rd anniversary on Oct. 18, 2022! Joanna is the Lead Regional Support Staff, acting as mentor to our team of administrative professionals. When she’s not at work, Joanna loves spending time with her grandchildren and soaking up the sun at the beach.
Congratulations on your 23rd anniversary here at KidsVoice!
I feel honored to be in the position I’ve been in for so long. I appreciate it. Doing something every day like you know the back of your hand is nice. I don’t know all, but I can try to get an answer to anything. Even now, there may be something that comes up that I’ve never encountered!
What about KidsVoice’s work resonates with you?
What resonates with me is the quality of [KidsVoice’s] services. They can really help these kids. I think we’ve got it right in this office.
The things that come across my desk really affect me. Some of the cases are complex and we don’t just go with the standard solutions. Other places, the kids probably wouldn’t get these services. We’re just trying to help these kids and I really appreciate that.
What was KidsVoice like in 1999?
When I started, it was still Legal Aid for Children. We were in a very tiny office. It was across from a high school football field. The high school is an apartment building now. We had ten attorneys and two support staff for 5,000 clients. It’s fast-paced now, but you were literally hands-on everything then. Attorneys would deal with everything. We didn’t have social workers at the time. And we had lots of stuff. Lots of papers. Lots of files. We don’t have too many papers in the office now, but when we moved from South Side to downtown, we had a lot of stuff to move.
When a case is assigned to KidsVoice by the Allegheny County juvenile court system, what is your role?
KidsVoice’s teams are split into regions, just like Children, Youth and Families. We [the support staff] open the cases in our system to give to the regional supervisors, so they can assign the cases to the attorneys and CAS’s (Child Advocacy Specialists). So, we do a lot of data entry. I also share the court dockets and upload all the documents for each date so the CAS’s and attorneys have what they need. [After,] I upload the court orders.
Thank you for taking time to answer my questions! Final question: what’s your favorite season?
Spring. Now that I have grandkids and they’re pretty much all spring babies, I’ll say spring. I have three grandbabies and I love them to death. I also love the flowers blossoming and I like being able to wear a sweater, the comfortable weather.
Rebecca Shafer joined KidsVoice as a Child Advocacy Specialist—KidsVoice’s social service professionals—in 2003. She is also the Independent Living Project Coordinator, which plans the semi-annual Transition Age Youth Resource Fairs; Human Services Training Coordinator, and leads the organization’s innovative Two-Generation Program. She says her favorite part of KidsVoice is its collaborative nature and her colleagues.
As KidsVoice “expanded” its work to include support for youth through age 24 who have aged out of the foster care system, your work also began to reflect this. Can you tell me about what you do?
"[As part of the Expansion Team,] I field a lot of calls, emails and texts from our older youth about housing, legal issues, and money issues. I advocate for youth with housing authorities, deliver emergency supplies, and try to link youth to the services that can help. I also attend meetings and trainings and do site visits to learn about new programs in the county.
"The really cool part … is that I have the support of some pretty fantastic attorneys that are eager to collaborate and work through our clients’ issues. For example, when we discover a summary criminal charge or an eviction, I can talk to a team member and arrange for representation, in-house."
You recently co-authored an article about KidsVoice’s two-generation program for The American Bar Association’s Spring 2022 Children's Rights Litigation newsletter. Why are “two-gen” clients especially vulnerable?
"The two-gen program works with KidsVoice clients that are expecting or parenting children of their own. They are young adults who aged out of the system with few supports. Our focus is to provide connections to services in their communities in an attempt to keep their children from being involved in the juvenile court system.
"It’s not unusual for a new two-gen client to come to us with a specific urgent need like diapers or formula. We help them to meet that initial need, but upon further conversations we try to identify other issues that this young family may be facing.
Some of our young adults have previous legal matters that are barriers to employment. Some of their children have developmental issues and our clients are not always aware of the supports (developmental and financial) available to them and their children. They need help navigating other systems like housing and public benefits.
"These issues are problems that young adults who grow up with limited resources and trauma often face."
What is something you enjoy about working with older youth?
"I love working with transition age youth. I actually enjoy working with youth of all ages but for older youth our service is voluntary, and they really appreciate us. Many of the youth I work with have had a really rough upbringing, and they often have no one to help them when a problem arises. We’re here to be that help, and it’s always so rewarding when they really open up to me about what’s really going on and I start to work with the team to address those issues."
At the end of a long week, what is your go-to for self-care?
"The work that we do can be emotionally taxing, so sometimes when I have some free time, I like to do the most mindless thing possible—watch reality TV!"
Cheryl Gorski celebrated her 20th anniversary at KidsVoice this past February. A former Navy JAGC lawyer, when Cheryl isn’t representing KidsVoice clients in court, she enjoys reading and takes pride in her garden. She resides in Allegheny County with her husband, a chemical engineer. Her children have each followed in her footsteps: her daughter is an attorney and her son works with children.
You have been with KidsVoice for 20 years! How have things changed since you started?
“They were just starting this new multidisciplinary model of assigning attorneys and child advocacy specialists to each case when I was hired. … I have seen KidsVoice really grow. I remember when we all got together to talk about what our mission statement should be. We’ve expanded into so many different areas now. We have an education team now. We have expansion now [a team that works specifically with older youth transitioning out of the foster care system]. … This is better for the kids.”
Is there anything in particular that has kept you at KidsVoice for so long?
“People ask me ‘why didn’t you become a judge?’ or ‘why didn’t you do this or that?’ And I say, ‘because this is what I wanted to do.’ I honestly consider this a dream job. It’s working with kids all the time and then representing them in court. There are so many kids. I have cards from them on the wall. I have foster parents who call me and they keep in touch with me and give me updates. I was just invited to a high school graduation!”
What does your typical work week look like?
“I typically have court two days a week. … I have case team meetings with the Child Advocacy Specialists assigned to each case. I have paperwork before each hearing and then I do any follow-up after the hearing. Then there’s coordinating child visits to make sure I get to know every client. I’m constantly talking to foster parents, case workers. There’s inter-agency meetings, school meetings. Multitasking is important and also being able to prioritize so you can get everything done in time.”
In your free time, you have a lot of hobbies. Thinking about summer and vacations, do you have a favorite travel destination?
“The destination that had the biggest impact on me was in high school when I went to Europe. I stayed in a school for four weeks. We studied French there and learned to dance and cook French cuisine and it was amazing. The first time I saw the ocean was in France!”
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