There are child advocates in Connecticut.
And then there are Child Advocates of Connecticut.
That — capitalized — is a group of volunteers. They collaborate with the state Department of Children and Families, child protective attorneys, schools and local community providers, to advocate for a child’s best interests.
No, we’re not talking about if a kid should have a TV in his room, or a girl should be allowed to have a tattoo.
Child Advocates of Connecticut are involved in custody battles. Decisions on whether to remove someone from an alcoholic, drug-filled or abusive home. These are life-and-death situations — sometimes literally.
Advocates are “guardians ad litem” — looking out for the best interests of a child. They’re appointed by the court in cases of abuse or neglect. Developing a unique relationship with the child — and working with parents, foster parents, doctors, teachers and others — they make recommendations to the court.
“DCF workers and attorneys are good. But they’re overworked,” says program director Jackie Grundei, a Westport resident. “We work with one kid and one family.”
Child Advocates may, for example, monitor whether a parent is actually involved in court-mandated substance abuse rehabilitation. That helps determine whether it’s in a child’s best interest to live with those parents, or not.
“Our goal is to find children a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible,” Grundei says. “We have no preconceived notion of what that is.”
Advocates undergo extensive training — but they don’t need specific legal knowledge.
“We have attorneys, but also nurses and social workers,” Grundei says.
“The best qualifications are 2 eyes to see things, 2 ears to hear, a mouth to advocate with, and a heart.”
Feedback is fantastic. The courts appreciate the help, and advocates cherish the chance to help.
“Things don’t always go right,” Grundei notes. “Every ending is not happy. But the opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life is great.”
The judge who swears in Child Advocates concurs. Her message is the same each time: “You’ll never make as big an impact on a child’s life in anything you do as this. You’re there at a very vulnerable time in his or her life. Thank you for all you do.”
“None of this would be possible without the energy, talent and commitment of an extraordinary group of people who know firsthand that volunteers make a significant contribution to Connecticut’s overwhelmed juvenile protection system,” says executive director Jill Bicks — another Westporter.
If it seems as if Westporters have embraced Child Advocates of Connecticut with special zeal — they have.
The newest crop of volunteers to be sworn in include 8 local women: Senta Cassell, Gail Cohen, Catherine Davis, Theanne Feldman, Jennifer Ferrante, Francene Jarvis, Deb Koenig and Linda Smith.
“Some people go around the world to do volunteer work. But Bridgeport is right next door,” says Koenig.
“It’s important to put time into things that have meaning to me.”
(The next training sessions for Child Advocates of Connecticut are February 7, 8, 9, 14 and 15, from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Westport area. Click here for details.)