By KAITLYN NAPLES
What started as a mentor program in 1975 has evolved into a 501C3, non-profit organization in the state that provides volunteers to be advocates and a constant in a neglected and/or abused child’s life.
Children in Placement facilitates judicial review of families and children who are involved in court cases of neglect and abuse. Every year between 60 and 70 individuals who are interested in the well-being of children and providing an unbiased set of eyes to the Probate Court volunteer their time to become Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) and serve as Guardians Ad Litem (GAL).
According to Genese Clark, a training coordinator with Children in Placement, Children in Placement is now active in Bristol’s Region 19 Probate Court, thanks to the Bristol Brass General Grant Fund and the Gnazzo-Reidy Charitable Fund at the Main Street Community Foundation.
“There’s abuse and neglect everywhere, and no one representing the best interest of the child,” Clark said about the program being in Bristol.
Children in Placement is always looking for volunteers, who need no requirements of a background in education or psychology.
“Just someone with a big heart,” Coordinator Cathy Ciresi said.
Volunteers, who range from college graduates to retirees, go through a five-day training session before they are cleared to take on a case. They must take a two-year commitment. And Clark said most volunteers end up exceeding those two years with the program. The volunteers will be assigned to a case that matches well with the client, Clark said, and then will research the case to offer unbiased suggestions about housing placement and information on what the child may need.
“They do their own, independent research and write up a report and make suggestions to the judge,” Clark said. She added the volunteers spend time with the child and family, talk with doctors, therapists, social workers and more to get as much information as possible. Volunteers only take on one case at a time, to ensure he or she can focus on understanding that case, learning what the child wants, and what services are needed, Clark said.
The training is extensive, Clark said, and volunteers learn about the court process, listen to speakers, understand permanency of housing, and more.
“They get a lot of information,” Clark said. “We want them to be equipped and feel comfortable talking to court officials and attorneys and discuss the case intelligently.”
Anne Holihan, Chief Clerk II Region 19 Probate District, said having the Children in Placement program come to Region 19 will be beneficial and “offer a different perspective” and “bring more advocacy for what is in the best interest of the child.”
Holihan heard about Children in Placement from a fellow attorney and contacted the city’s grants office to find out ways to be able to bring the program to Bristol.
“We are just so delighted to have Children in Placement here for our families,” Holihan said.
Children in Placement works on cases with children between birth to 18-years-old. Ciresi said the volunteers, if they choose to, stay with their one case until it is closed so they can be a constant presence in that child’s life.
“Social workers change, attorneys change, and foster families change,” Ciresi said. “These kids are with strangers, and then they have their GAL who is constant and there for them every step of the way. They know their volunteer is always there.”
Clark added she believes the volunteers with Children in Placement are the best out there.
“This isn’t your normal volunteer position,” Clark said, and Ciresi added that there are “so many emotions, and it can take a lot out of the volunteers,” so when a case is completed, and a volunteer needs some time away from their duties, Children in Placement encourages that.
“We want our volunteers to take on cases with a fresh slate,” Clark said, adding a coordinator from Children in Placement is assigned to a volunteer to assist in the process.
Sue Davenport, of Burlington, will be volunteering out of the Bristol Probate Court. She said she has a legal and sociology background and always wanted to be a foster parent. She said she figured being a volunteer would be just as rewarding.
“I grew up in foster care, and at the age of 12 or 13 one social worker helped me so much that I said at that time ‘I want to do that one day’,” Davenport said during a break from a training session in Waterbury last week. She added she is looking forward to “adding suggestions that are original for a child,” and be able to help compromise with everyone involved in the case.
Clark said volunteers come from all kinds of backgrounds, and are able to offer something different to the agency.
“It’s one of the most rewarding things they (volunteers) will ever do,” Clark said. “When you volunteer, you look back at a case and say ‘this may have not turned out this way if I wasn’t involved’.”
Children in Placement, Clark said, is not a bureaucracy. “Our executive director (Joan Jenkins) is completely committed to serving the needs of our kids, without worrying about who is going to pay for it.”
Both Ciresi and Clark said that the staff and volunteers with Children in Placement invest their time into the lives of the children.
“They’re not just a case,” Ciresi said, adding she got involved in Children in Placement after being a mom in the school system and thinking she couldn’t ever imagine her children going through some of the situations she saw other children go through.
For Clark, her experience working with children in Africa was life-changing, and she said she “knew there was such a need here, and I knew I could help fulfill that need.”
For more information on Children in Placement or how to be a volunteer, visit www.childreninplacement.org or call (203) 784-0344.
By KAITLYN NAPLES