Like many college students, Randa Hojaiban had a minimum wage job on the side.
Other than that, she wasn’t much like most college students. She was earning two degrees at once — a master’s in social work and a JD at the University of Connecticut School of Law. And the minimum wage job wasn’t in a restaurant or a retailer at the mall, it was with the Children’s Law Center of Connecticut in Hartford. "I sort of fell into it—I was older than most other students and was getting stir crazy, and the Law Center was looking for some help in its early existence," said Hojaiban.
The Children’s Law Center, or CLC, provides legal representation to low-income children who are stuck in their parents’ family court disputes. More than 10 years later, the CLC is four times larger in staff. Academic degrees in hand, Hojaiban is now the center’s deputy director. Last month, the New Britain Bar Foundation awarded Hojaiban its prestigious President’s Award for her work serving impoverished children in the local family courts.
"If anyone deserves that [award], it’s Randa," said former CLC employee Monique Ryan, who met Hojaiban in law school in 2000. "She’s so committed, always willing to talk and offer and gather different perspectives, which is essential in the work you do at the CLC."
Hojaiban deflects praise to those she works with in the New Britain Family Court. "I have been so lucky," Hojaiban said. "It is a courthouse filled with people who understand how to do family law in a sensitive fashion. The environment there suits my personality perfectly."
She said it’s never easy to balance the social work and legal aspects of her job. It’s her role to both make sure that a child gets the counseling needed while at the same time following the parents’ divorce proceedings and representing the child in a legal setting.
She praises the New Britain judges, clerks and family relations counselors for working together and looking out for the best interests of the child — even if that takes a little extra time.
"I would imagine that some other courts are concerned with cases that have been open for a while, examining what the [case completion] numbers look like," Hojaiban said. "The fact of the matter is these family court cases do take longer. The docket is of concern, but people aren’t forced out of the New Britain court if they are not ready."
Hojaiban is also mediates in the CLC’s Families in Transition program, which provides low-income families with counseling on custody issues. Teams of attorneys and mental health professionals meet with families who simply can’t afford to battle it out in family court; there is a sliding fee — starting at $10 per session — based on parental incomes.
The program has the added benefit of being less stressful than a courtroom encounter. The social worker in Hojaiban likes this type of approach, as it gives families more control over their destiny. "Breakups are hard enough without involving kids," she said. "When you can get the parents through that tough period and get them to raise their kids together, those are the most rewarding cases for me."
Hojaiban acknowledged that most divorce cases don’t play out in such an ideal way. But she’s optimistic that people in her line of work are part of a trend that’s leading to less acrimonious break-ups.
"Appointing attorneys to children much earlier on tends to help," she said. "If someone is there early on and educate them and their parents about the harm they are doing to their kids, it’s not just a win or lose outcome. [Moving forward,] children can have relationships with both [parents]."
Earlier in her legal career, Hojaiban was assigned to cases much that were much further along in the legal process, and it was too late to reverse negative behavior fueled by emotional exhaustion and frustration.
The cases Hojaiban takes on have dealt mostly with children caught up in situatons involving child abuse, domestic violence, neglect, mental illness, substance abuse or chronic conflict. She said approaching such cases with a fusion of social work and legal representation was a fairly new concept when she attended UConn Law more than 10 years ago.
"It was a new time. Many efforts were really starting from scratch," Hojaiban said, adding that it is still a challenge to navigate the two fields. "It’s become even more rewarding with more practice, more growth, more involvement, like with most things."