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Suffolk County, Mass., Assistant District Attorney Gary Zerola flicks on the lights, illuminating two rooms separated by a two-way mirror. He points out the unobtrusive video cameras and six microphones used in one room to gather evidence during interviews with children who have been abused. He demonstrates how the audio and video recordings are fed to investigators, prosecutors and victim witness advocates watching the interview in the adjoining room. Such a sophisticated system didn’t exist when Zerola was a boy under the care of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. “My mother wasn’t able to care for me, and my father wasn’t ever a factor,” he says, skirting the details. As a child, Zerola carried his clothes in paper bags between foster homes. Today, the 29-year-old is a prosecutor protecting children who are as vulnerable as he once was. Since June, he has worked in the child abuse unit of Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph C. Martin II’s office. The unit is a multidisciplinary team whose work has been hailed as a national model for law enforcement and child protection units. “With my background, I don’t have an ax to grind; I have a special understanding and sensitivity to the victims,” he says. “I knew this is where my heart is.” The youngest of seven children, Zerola was first placed in foster care at age 3 and bounced from home to home until the age of 14, when he and his sister Frances were finally placed with attorney Robert Bowes and his wife, Millie, in Lynn, Mass. Zerola arrived a shy, skinny little kid who refused to drink milk, eat potatoes or consistently perform well in school. An erratic electronics student at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute, he says, he could get 100 on one test and 15 on another. At the urging of a teacher, he enrolled in electronics at Franklin Institute in Boston, but he soon switched to Suffolk University, where he majored in communications. Suffolk was next door to the statehouse, so he and the man he calls his father used to meet regularly for lunch. Zerola eventually got the idea that he’d like to follow in his foster father’s footsteps and study law. Given his early childhood, his success at Suffolk Law School was pretty remarkable: Zerola was the only student in the school’s history to give the commencement address to both his undergraduate class and, four years later, in 1998, to his law school class. Zerola is a frequent public speaker on behalf of foster children. He is a member of KidsNet Council, a branch of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which provides training and educational programs for foster parents. In 1998, he organized a benefit for foster children called “One for the Kids,” which so far has raised $30,000 to provide emergency funding for DSS foster children. The central Massachusetts office of DSS has created a scholarship for foster children in Zerola’s name. He also helped to organize a Sept. 22 fundraiser for the Rowell Foster Family Positive Plan, which provides scholarships for foster kids involved in arts and athletics. And this fall, Zerola begins as an adjunct professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he will be teaching advanced professional communications to graduate students and critical thinking and argumentation to undergraduates. Zerola credits his foster father, an assistant counsel at the Massachusetts statehouse, with helping to get him where he is today. Bowes, in return, expresses great faith and admiration for Zerola. “Millie and I always recognized that Gary was a bright kid, and we expected that if he just got on the straight path he’d be fine,” says Bowes, 72.

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