Jamey Bell’s career has come full circle.
She spent 26 years as a staff attorney at Greater Hartford Legal Aid before moving on to leadership roles elsewhere. Now she’s leaving her job as state Child Advocate after less than a year to lead the legal aid agency where her career started.
Bell said she’s making the move because of her commitment to legal aid work and not because she disliked the state job to which she was appointed by Governor Dannel Malloy.
The opening at GHLA "was obviously unexpected, and it certainly wasn’t on the horizon last year when [the Child Advocate] opportunity arose," said Bell. "I decided that although I didn’t do everything I wanted to do as Child Advocate, I was very interested in spending what’s probably the last part of my career as a lawyer in the legal aid community, where I worked and worked successfully for 26 years."
Bell will start her new position at GHLA in early August. She succeeds Branford Brown, the past executive director who moved from Ohio to take the position. Brown resigned in January and returned to Ohio.
"He had some family obligations that kind of drew him back there," said Kristen Hoffman, an immigration lawyer from Hartford who is president of GHLA’s Board of Directors. "We’re appreciative of his leadership while he was here for two years."
Hoffman said Jill Davies, another longtime GHLA employee, has been interim director since Brown left. The agency formed a search committee, which recommended Bell. The board of directors voted to hire her last month. She will oversee 21 attorneys.
"In the end, it turned out to be an easy decision," said Hoffman. "We’re really excited to have Jamey come on board. She has a wealth of experience and a demonstrated commitment to the core values of the agency."
Hoffman said Bell will take over an office that is in better shape financially than it was four years ago. Like the state’s other legal aid agencies, GHLA encountered a financial crisis in 2009 when Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) went into a rapid decline after the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. IOLTA had provided the bulk of the funding for legal aid to that point.
In response, the legislature increased court filing fees to create a new revenue stream. Hoffman said thanks to the state money, and in-house fund-raising effort, GHLA has not had to lay off any workers since 2009.
"There was a time where things were pretty tough," said Hoffman. "We weathered the storm as well as possible."
Bell grew up in the Michigan suburbs of Detroit. She attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and then moved east for law school, attending Northeastern.
In law school, she said she knew she wanted to go into legal aid. She soon got that chance. She moved to Hartford in 1982 and took a job with GHLA, which at the time was called the Legal Aid Society of Hartford County.
"I was there for 26 years. My title was always staff attorney, but I was lucky to be able to be supported by the leadership there to learn and represent a lot of people in different areas of the law," said Bell. "I started out in general housing and benefits practice and then I pretty quickly developed into a practice that was focused on people with disabilities and children, children with disabilities and also children in the child protection system."
For her last eight or nine years at GHLA, Bell was lead counsel in a federal class action lawsuit against the state Department of Social Services regarding the failures of the Medicaid program to provide oral health services to poor children and their families.
A settlement was reached in 2008, as DSS agreed to restructure the state’s oral health program and invest an additional $80 million to increase the fees paid to dentists so that low-income families could have better access to dental care.
Soon thereafter, Bell left GHLA to become executive director of the non-profit group Connecticut Voices for Children. "I was interested in pursuing leadership opportunities," said Bell. "We did work that was complementary to legal aid and a lot of work in collaboration."
Bell remained at Connecticut Voices for Children until last fall, when Malloy appointed her state Child Advocate. Bell replaced Jeanne Milstean, who retired after more than a decade in the position. The Office of the Child Advocate monitors and evaluates public and private agencies that are charged with the protection of children, and reviews state agency policies and procedures to ensure they protect children’s rights and promote their best interest.
"It’s a great job and a very important position," said Bell. "I have enjoyed it very much."
Mallow will have to appoint someone to fill the remainder of Bell’s four-year term as state Child Advocate. And Bell will return to the legal aid agency where she spent most of her professional life. She says being away for five years has "fostered" a renewed urge to help low-income clients, especially now that – from the perspective of her other leadership positions — she’s seen how individualized, client-based legal aid work can benefit the community as a whole.
"I see better than I was able to when I was inside [GHLA] as a staff attorney how significant of a role we play," Bell said. "We want all of our attorneys to experience that and embrace that, and maximize their participation in that." •