Fairfield County women become child advocates

New class of child advocates sworn in

Fifteen volunteers were sworn in as child advocates by a juvenile court judge Thursday at the Stamford courthouse, a milestone for the agency that provides southwestern Connecticut's courts with representatives to look after the interests of abused and neglected children.

The swearing-in of the group by Judge Kevin Randolph illustrates the Child Advocates of SW Connecticut's ability to bring a nationally recognized standard to the development of its volunteers, the organization's executive director, Stacey Sobel, said.

A total of 18 volunteers -- three were unable to make the ceremony -- are the organization's first class of trainees to be sworn in as advocates since the Norwalk-based nonprofit was made a provisional member of the National Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children. CASA is the premier organization that serves the needs of abused or neglected children nationwide.

"This marks the completion of their training and their ability to accept cases on behalf of abused and neglected children in the courts system," Sobel said.

The carefully screened and diverse group of women, among them attorneys, professional businesswomen and stay-at-home moms, had more than 35 hours of training and attended classes for five weeks, Sobel said.

Former clinical social worker Rosemary Contreras, 55, of Darien, said her three children are now out of high school and she wanted to help.

"I feel there are a lot of children who could use an advocate and who could use somebody to speak up for them and advocate for the things they need, the very basic things they need, like food and shelter and a safe environment," Contreras said.

Trish DePhillips, 56, of Stamford, owns a construction firm and says she has a special place in her heart for children after teaching nursery school for five years and raising four sons.

"When working in nursery school with a diverse group of children, you see the ones that are neglected a little more than the others and I went towards those children, just to get them a little extra TLC, if they weren't getting that at home," she said.

DePhillips said she volunteers at Stamford Hospital, but she was looking for somewhere else to make a difference. She came across the program and figured it would be something interesting to do.

"It was great, because when I did go through the course, I found that somebody else can be a voice for those children, that they might not have a voice for some reason, whether it's because of fear or situations or stress," DePhillips said. "I have been a wonderful mother to my sons, and I have always loved them unconditionally, and that is not always the case with these children. And it was something important for me to do, something fulfilling and satisfying."

Interior designer and stay-at-home mom Janet Rubel, 57, of Westport said, "This is my time to give back to society. My three children are all grown up, the last one is in college ... I have some time. Yes, I am a busy woman, but I feel we have to give back to society. If I can make one child's life a better life, then I have made this world a better place, and that is the real reason I am doing this."

The advocates will work at the Stamford and Danbury courthouses, helping children from 16 towns. Sobel said the agency has helped more than 150 children since it was founded in 2010. It has trained about 100 volunteers, and has 65 actively working on cases.

"There are all kinds of outcomes, not always happy," Sobel said. "The cases are very, very difficult, and the volunteer work is unlike any other volunteer work that you might think. This is really, really complicated, heart-wrenching volunteer work."