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It was cold and dark outside the Danielson office of the Child Protection Council on the evening of Nov. 2, 1992. Inside, things were just as grim for Ayla Rose Moylan, a 6-year-old girl suffering through a court-ordered visit with her father, Diego “Nick” Vas. The brown-eyed girl, known for her laugh, was sullen and mute. Rather than words, she expressed herself by drawing three pictures on a marker board. First, she sketched the face of a frowning man and scribbled “dad” next to it. Then she drew a little girl crying; “me” was the quote next to that picture. The third drawing told the story of their relationship: a broken heart, described as “Us.” When the meeting ended, Vas bickered in the hallway with Ayla’s mother, JoAnn E. Daigle, then disappeared into an adjacent room. He came back carrying a backpack from which he pulled a gun. He turned the weapon on Daigle, but she scrambled for cover. Undeterred, Vas approached his daughter and fatally shot her in the head at point-blank range. “After Ayla’s death, we had to find a way to offer children more protection in the family court process,” said Judith Hyde, recalling the origins of the Children’s Law Center of Connecticut Inc., which is now marking its 10th anniversary. Through late 1992 and into 1993, Hyde, a social worker at the Child Protection Council when the slaying occurred, led a coalition of parents, lawyers and childcare professionals in an effort to identify aspects of the child protection system that needed strengthening. By July of ’93, said Hyde, the coalition blossomed into the Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit group providing free legal protection for underprivileged children trapped in the tumult of divorce, while advocating legislation that “advances the well being of children” in the courts. “Since we opened our doors, we have helped close to 10,000 children,” Hyde, currently its director of development, proclaimed in a recent interview. “That’s about a thousand kids a year.” MENDING FAMILY BONDS CLC staff attorney Otto Iglesias is in the courts fighting for these children on a daily basis. “I love my job,” said Iglesias, grinning broadly. “What I love most about it is that I intervene to help the kids.” Passionate and dedicated, Iglesias said that he sleeps “at night knowing that I am helping one child at a time … by protecting their rights and integrity.” To advocate for children effectively, you have to understand them, he said, and that is impossible unless they trust you. “Sometimes I sit around playing dolls or X-Box with them,” he said with a laugh. “I establish a relationship and we build from there.” Typically, Iglesias’ clients are poor children caught in a tug-of-war custody battle. These disputes often objectify the child, he said. They are no longer a person; they are a possession to be won from the other spouse. Once custody is granted, it’s often the parent not awarded primary custody who inflicts the most damage on the children Iglesias represents, he said. Whatever the scenario, the children usually suffer extreme emotional duress, which can last a lifetime. Iglesias said he believes it’s his job to remove the child from the front lines of the battle and place himself into the conflict, to become a kind of shield that protects the child’s welfare. Recently, he represented a 5-year-old girl embroiled in a bitter custody dispute. The former couple’s relationship had deteriorated to the point where they couldn’t “be within 10 feet of each other without shouting,” Iglesias recalled. Despite their animosity for each other, both parents were dedicated to the child. The mother, however, won primary custody. Angered and hurt by the ruling, the father expressed his contempt by taking the girl on vacation to Florida without notifying the mother, which resulted in his being arrested and losing visitation rights. The child, however, was devastated by the break with her father, whom she had always been close with. Seeing that the separation was doing more harm than good, Iglesias initiated supervised visits for the two at a therapeutic center. Iglesias said he hopes the therapy sessions will teach the father to act within the appropriate boundaries of secondary custody and ultimately lead to unmonitored visitation. “I feel that I’ve helped start a process that will reunite a little girl with her father,” said Iglesias. Beyond representing children in custody disputes, the CLC also mediates through its chronic resolution program, in which attorneys and social workers combine their expertise to assist sparring parents in devising custody agreements, said Executive Director Justine Rakich-Kelly. In addition, the center offers a free-of-charge telephone service that provides information, advice and referrals. Currently, the CLC is based in Hartford, but the organization plans to expand its reach to Middletown and New Britain, said Rakich-Kelly. “We are looking to have more of a presence and influence statewide,” she said. “We’re also working on improving our resolution program,” and ensuring that state lawmakers implement changes that strengthen child protection in the courts. These expansions have been facilitated by a steady rise in donations. “The level of generosity has been amazing,” said Hyde. “We started out with [an annual] budget of $20,000 and now are up to $243,000. … We must be doing something right.” As Rakich-Kelly sees it, the CLC’s increased influence will have a positive effect on society as a whole. “We bring issues of indigence before the court,” she said. “And hopefully, we help affect change for the better.”

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