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Kelly Reiter: A Career Helping Children, Families, and Communities

Kelly Reiter was one of the many extraordinarily dedicated and intelligent college students who was torn between two passions. In Reiter’s case, she had a long-term interest in pursuing law but felt fulfillment working with young people. “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, always. And I knew I wanted to work with teens, kids, and youth.” This passion for working with young people stemmed from experiences she had as a child herself. Reiter was interested in better understanding the experiences of kids in the foster care system. This sparked her desire to pursue supporting youth in those circumstances as a career. She worked in many occupations, further discovering both to see which was right for her - where she ultimately discovered she could find a career doing both. 

Reiter went to San Diego State University as an undergrad studying Sociology. While it is common for students to apply for law school while they are still finishing their bachelor's, Reiter decided to take an alternative route. She took on work opportunities that would help make her certain that she did in fact, want to become a lawyer. “I knew I had ‘the idea’ of wanting to be a lawyer, but I didn’t really know what that meant.” After graduating, Reiter worked in a group home to better understand the intricacies of the foster care system. It was through this work she was able to observe many of the flaws within that system at the time. “We’re taking kids out of a dysfunctional place to help them and replacing them right in [another] dysfunctional environment? That doesn’t seem right.” Following that, she secured a job at a temp law agency in San Francisco to get exposure to the day-to-day responsibilities of working as a lawyer. 

After taking a few years to explore different career paths within the legal field, she enrolled in law school. Having to pay for her law degree independently, Reiter continued to work full-time during the day at a maritime law firm and completed her coursework in the evening. Reiter became a lawyer in 1999 and has worked in the 9 Bay Area counties including Marin County for 25 years. Her career in child welfare/family law began at an annual event in Marin for female lawyers, where she met Kristine Cirby, the then-legal director of the Family and Children’s Law Center. During her ten years at the Family and Children’s Law Center, she helped represent all youth (and some parents) in dependency court in the county. When the Center lost the contract for representing the youth in Marin, Reiter had to decide whether to dive fully into family law, which she was doing on the side, or pave a path in a new direction. She went to other nearby counties to represent parents, guardians, de facto, and foster parents in cases within the dependency system as a private attorney. She often vigorously advocated for improved techniques to be used within the traditional family law system, claiming it often rubbed lawyers change-averse the wrong way. “When I am talking about children being hurt, I’m not all rosey…” 

When Reiter retired as a private attorney, she continued some family law work via consulting and mediation, beginning her volunteering at Youth Transforming Justice. Reiter has facilitated many of our Peer Solutions cases for over a year. 

Reiter first saw restorative practices gaining traction in the legal field ten years ago. During her time as a lawyer, she met several pioneers of integration. While the term has become more commonly recognized and used by legal scholars, she thinks more education needs to be done about what these practices are. “I don’t know that a lot of people understand the process and the benefits. And I think that’s the problem with any tool that is new…the struggle is getting people to understand actually how well it works and how to utilize it.” She believes in the efficacy of restorative practices especially when it comes to young people, advocating for it to be implemented in all schools as young as elementary as an alternative to punitive policies. 

After decades of experience working with children and families, often in incredibly difficult circumstances, Reiter asserts how important trauma-informed practices are. Adverse childhood experiences can have a lasting impact on everything from health to behavior, and both schools and the legal field could benefit from taking that more into account when working with youth. “It’s not about punishing kids, it's about learning, and we are their teachers…Punishment doesn’t teach anybody anything.”

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