Falling through the cracks. Four simple words that can mean so much. The expression may refer to overlooked details, like a telephone call we meant to make or a thank-you note that should have gone out last week. It’s a catchall excuse for one of those “oops, sorry” moments that occurs to all of us. It is also a phrase that too often applies to disadvantaged children, those who have been abused by their families or left to fend for themselves. For some people in our communities, saying sorry to those kids is not an option.
Veronica Tella is one of those individuals. Ronnie, as this Wilton resident is known by associates, is coordinator of volunteers with Children in Placement (CIP), a child advocacy group based in New Haven. When the fate of a mistreated or neglected child ends up in the hands of a judge, very often that jurist will call for a CIP delegate to help determine what course of action best serves the child’s interests. “What the representative does is so powerful, because he writes reports and makes recommendations to the judge,” Ronnie says, “and those are usually the first thing we talk about in court.”
To create insightful reports, a volunteer, called a Guardian ad Litem (GAL), immerses himself in all the details of the case. He talks with the parents, teachers, social workers and the child, and presents his findings to the judge. “His job,” says Ronnie, “is to investigate.”
CIP, which is affiliated with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a national program, was established in 1979 as a system of monitoring to ensure that troubled parents dealt with their substance abuse or child-rearing problems. Typically, those monitors were attorneys and others well schooled in law. But in 1995 the State of Connecticut decided to allow lay people to serve as GALs, significantly broadening the pool of volunteers. Thus, when Bob Nalewajek enrolled in the CASA training program five years ago, he found himself among people from all walks of life.