Beyond Vassar

Giving Legal Help to Children

By Maryann Teale Snell

Judith Hamlin Hyde ’59 will never forget the November day when she learned that a six-year-old girl had been shot by her own father during a supervised visitation in Hyde’s office. The girl was killed, and the social worker handling the case was permanently injured. Coincidentally—and unbelievably—Hyde’s son died the same day.

Either of these two tragic events might numb a person into inaction, but in the case of Judy Hyde, the combination was the jolt she needed to try to make a difference.

As a child and family therapist, Hyde had years of experience working with fragmented families; and she’d seen plenty of instances in which parents—primarily mothers—"didn’t seem to have a way to safeguard children once cases got to family court."

On multiple occasions, Hyde found herself in the unenviable position of being asked for legal advice. Parents, she knew, should have easier access to help. And so she’d already begun scouting around the country for a legal advocacy center for children, thinking she might someday start one herself.

But within weeks of that fateful fall day in 1992, the idea had surged from the back of her mind to the forefront. She and Connecticut Superior Court Judge Charles Gill, a founder of the National Task Force for Children’s Constitutional Rights, organized a conference on children’s rights in the courts. More than 200 people attended. Several who shared Hyde’s concerns then met with her in the months that followed and eventually formed what became the first board of directors of the Children’s Law Center of Connecticut.

The CLC, which represents children in the Superior Courts of Hartford, Tolland, and Windham, opened its doors in July 1993. In its first year, the center represented seven children in family court and fielded phone calls from around the state, from people desperate for information. Hyde, who serves as administrative director, says it’s the only center she knows of in the U.S. that’s "devoted to providing lawyers for children in family court, primarily for custody and visitation cases in which children are at risk due to poverty, substance abuse, child abuse allegations, domestic violence, or chronic conflict by parents."

Funded in large part by the Connecticut Bar Foundation as well as individuals and other foundations, the CLC represented over 200 children in 1999. Its Children’s Lawline (1.888.LAW DOOR), provides information and suggestions regarding legal problems involving children and fielded more than 1,100 calls that year.

These numbers indicate the demand for such services and the success of the CLC. But Hyde—acknowledging that law is not her chosen field—suggests that one of the biggest obstacles on the center’s road to success has had to do with "professional turf issues [that] run strong and . . . can be an impediment to change." Still, last May, she was pleased to accept the Tolland County Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award for her service to the judicial system. Considering how hard it’s been for her to effect change precisely because she is not a lawyer, the award, she noted, was bittersweet.

Despite the frustrations, Hyde is forthcoming with the high points of her work for the CLC—like the $75-a-plate fundraising event last May, with featured guest Amy Brenneman, star and producer of the CBS-TV series Judging Amy. Amy’s real-life mother is Hyde’s longtime mentor and friend Frederica Brenneman, a Connecticut juvenile court judge "without whom," Hyde attests, "there would be no CLC."

Despite the center’s successes, Hyde is matter-of-fact about the role of the Children’s Law Center: "Terrible things are happening," she says of the tragedies that afflict families and children, "and we have a long, long way to go still."