Setting The Standard For Representing Children
After 6-year-old Ayla was murdered, Judith Hyde heard a voice inside her head. The message: Create a children's legal advocacy center to represent young children in family court.
Hyde had founded the Child Protection Council of Northeastern Connecticut, which included a small program to provide supervision for court-ordered visits between parents and their children. During one of those visits, Ayla Rose Moylan was shot and killed by her father, who was apparently upset by his former wife's plan to remarry. The visit supervisor, Joyce Lannan, was shot too and ended up blinded in one eye.
Out of Ayla's death and out of Hyde's intuition came the founding of the Children's Law Center of Connecticut, an organization whose core service is providing legal advocates to children in highly contentious family court cases. Hyde wrote in a piece of literary writing that she shared with the Law Tribune that, after the shooting incident, she felt tired and wanted time to recuperate. But the voice inside pushed back, telling Hyde: "Now is the time when you will have people with you to make this happen."
Twenty years later, the center represents children in eight of Connecticut's judicial districts with plans to expand into Norwich next year if funding stays steady, according to Executive Director Justine Rakich-Kelly. The organization has been celebrating its 20th anniversary with a series of events this year, including its annual gala held on Dec. 6.
Hyde stepped back from a leadership role 10 years into the organization's existence, but she has stayed involved as a volunteer mediator. However, Hyde's cofounder, Debra Ruel, a family law practitioner with Rome McGuigan in Hartford, has been on the organization's board for the past 20 years.
One thing "that always struck Judy [Hyde] as counterintuitive is that, if a parent was so dangerous that the child needed to be supervised, she wondered who was taking the child's point of view in the courtroom," Ruel said.
Initially, the center worked on a pro bono model, Ruel said. When Rakich-Kelly joined the organization seven years after it was founded as executive director, it was present in two judicial districts. Now it is in eight: Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, New Britain, Waterbury, Norwalk/Stamford, Tolland and Windham.
The budget was $200,000 when Rakich-Kelly joined and now has grown to $1.2 million. Thirteen years ago, the staff was just Rakich-Kelly and two half-time lawyers who had their own practices on the side. Now there are six staff attorneys, a deputy director who also handles cases, two full-time development professionals and one mental health professional.
In 2013, the center has represented 451 children in new cases and 199 kids whose cases carried over from prior years. The center's Law Line has handled 1,235 callers.
The Families in Transition (FIT) program has conducted mediations involving 55 divorcing couples and 86 children in the past few years, Rakich-Kelly said.