Courts At A Loss For Spanish Speakers To Help Protect Kids
November 24, 2006
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
Each year, special civilian advocates fight for the rights of thousands of abused and neglected children in the state's 13 juvenile courts. About a quarter of those cases involve Latino children or their families, officials say.
Yet there are no Latino civilian advocates in Hartford juvenile court and only two statewide, both of them in New Haven, according to Judy Moyer, the Hartford supervisor for Children in Placement, a private, nonprofit advocacy group.
It is not for want of trying. Moyer said she has reached out to the Hartford Latino community for help, but has received little response. She isn't sure why.
"It's important, I believe, for children in abuse and neglect cases to have someone of their own culture or race to talk to," Moyer said. "Currently in Hartford, there are black, white, male, female, young and old guardians [for children], but there isn't any Latinos."
Bilingual and Latino advocates are needed to accurately convey a child's needs and feelings to a judge and to conduct home studies of families where the parents or children only speak Spanish, Moyer said. Those studies are later used by judges to determine what is best for children at risk of abuse or neglect.
Moyer said that when she runs across a case in which a parent speaks only Spanish, she often has to rely on a relative, sibling, neighbor or sometimes even hand signals to get the information she needs.
"You can't get into any deep levels of conversation with anybody," Moyer said. "You often have to rely on siblings, yet you want to be able to report accurately."
Special advocates are also known as guardians ad litem, the Latin equivalent for guardians at law. They are assigned to a child by a judge to serve as his or her special legal representative when their wants or needs may be different from their parents'. In cases where a civilian is not available, a lawyer is often appointed.
At Children in Placement, special advocates are unpaid volunteers who get 40 hours of training and are supervised throughout a case, Moyer said. Current advocates include stay-at-home moms, retired teachers, former insurance executives and paralegals. They range in age from 30 to 65, Moyer said. There is a constant waiting list of children seeking advocates, she said.
The job usually involves about 10 to 15 hours of work a month after an initial surge that includes a lot of phone calls to a child's doctor, teachers, relatives about a case, Moyer said. Advocates must spend time visiting with the child and their families to prepare their report. They also are expected to attend case planning sessions with the Department of Children and Families, parent-teacher meetings at the child's school and all court sessions, Moyer said.
Children in Placement seeks a minimum two-year commitment to provide a child with a stable, reliable adult in their life, Moyer said. A special advocate is not a mentor and is not allowed to take the child places, Moyer said. They are considered an officer of the court and, while fighting for their child, must remain objective in their research, she said. Every advocate takes an oath of confidentiality.
While the job is challenging at times, the rewards can be great.
Advocates may help a child get the warm clothing they need or may work to keep two siblings together in foster care. Having a guardian who is of the same culture or who speaks the same language can help a child in foster care who has lost everything - their family, their school, their friends - feel more comfortable, Moyer said.
"The more often a guardian ad litem is involved, the more likely there is to be a positive outcome in a case," Moyer said.
Superior Court Judge Angelo dos Santos has seen the importance of sharing a common language in his 51/2 years on the bench. Dos Santos speaks four languages: Portuguese, Spanish, English and French.
"Hispanic children usually live a life that involves two cultures and two languages," dos Santos said. "During the day, they attend American schools and connect to American culture. At the end of the day, they return home to their parents who were raised with different values ... guardians ad litem who speak Spanish and understand the differences of both cultures would be extremely helpful."
Children in Placement's executive director, Joan Jenkins, said the agency tries to get a workforce that reflects the community it serves.
"We're making life-changing recommendations in some cases," Jenkins said. "We want to make sure we make the best recommendation for the families we serve. The ideal is to have someone of the same language and culture."
Anyone interested in becoming a special advocate can contact Children in Placement in the Hartford area at 860-728-3204 during daytime business hours or in New Haven at 203-784-0344.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at