New Nikkei head of Legal Services for Children hopes to help families in need

Cathy Sakimura. photo by Trish Tunney Photography

Working with youth has always been a priority for Cathy Sakimura, a Sansei lawyer from Hawai‘i. In her new position as executive director of Legal Services for Children, she leads the San Francisco-based nonprofit, which represents children and families with children, ensuring their access to education and stable living situations. The center also represents clients on immigration issues.

“I think that a lot of people don’t really think about how children and youth might need lawyers, and think about what legal services they may need. But certainly, when children are separated from their families and their parents, that is one of the big things that they do need, which is help from someone to navigate the legal options they may have to either be reunited with their families or to have a safe home to live in, or otherwise a safe place to live and to grow up and to realize their potential,” Sakimura told the Nichi Bei Weekly during a phone interview.

Prior to joining the organization in June, Sakimura served as deputy director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, also focusing on family law and recognition of parent-child relationships in law. She primarily worked with parents and children seeking legal recognition as a family while not having a genetic connection.

The subject of the work she does at LSC is similar, but she noted that her role as executive director means she will be focusing more on helping her staff do their work rather than taking on cases herself.

Sakimura has worked with youth throughout her career. Prior to her previous job, she worked at COLAGE, an organization for children with LGBTQ+ caregivers, and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network (since renamed the Genders & Sexuality Alliances Network), which helps students and schools form GSA clubs.

“My mother was a special education teacher and my older sister is a pediatrician. And so, working with children and families was always a big part of our family,” Sakimura said.

When she moved to California to attend college at Stanford University, Sakimura began volunteering with young people and went on to professionally work with them after that. Her work at COLAGE and the GSA Network inspired her to pursue a degree at University of California, Hastings College of Law, to work on behalf of youth and families.

“I did work with lawyers in COLAGE who were focused on how the families and young people get to use the law to enforce their rights and to achieve their full potential, and so that work inspired me to go to law school,” she said.

She said her ultimate goal is working with children and their families to help them “achieve their potential and achieve dignity and respect in the world,” she said.

At her new position at LSC, Sakimura said her biggest focus will be adjusting to the rapidly changing world and how it impacts her clients and staff.

“I think there’s constant changes to immigration law, as well as the inflation that’s happening that’s impacting especially families who are experiencing poverty,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of work for the staff to do and trying to keep up with the changes in the law and also the changes in what children and youth are experiencing in their lives.”

And while recent national headlines regarding abortion rights and proposed legislation against LGBTQ people do not directly affect the San Francisco-based nonprofit, Sakimura recognized that they do affect youth who are separated from their families and have fewer support systems.

All told, Sakimura said the LSC serves around 1,200 “youths and concerned adults” a year. As her organization can’t serve everyone who contacts them, it instead helps to try and find other attorneys and providers who can assist these callers.

“There are a lot of people experiencing challenges that make them need legal services, especially youth who are already facing the possibility of being separated from their families,” she said.

Sakimura said she, like everyone else, brings her whole self to work and while it’s not at the forefront of her approach to her work, this includes her Asian American and Japanese American heritage. She said she recognized how family plays a vital role and hoped to be a positive force for improving people’s lives.

“I don’t necessarily always talk about it, but I think there is such a culture of family and community in Japanese culture and in Japanese American culture, and it is an important role that we play in being part of advocacy and organizations like Legal Services for Children.”

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