After 6-year-old Ayla was murdered, Judith Hyde heard a voice inside her head. The message: Create a children’s legal advocacy center to represent young children in family court.

Hyde had founded the Child Protection Council of Northeastern Connecticut, which included a small program to provide supervision for court-ordered visits between parents and their children. During one of those visits, Ayla Rose Moylan was shot and killed by her father, who was apparently upset by his former wife’s plan to remarry. The visit supervisor, Joyce Lannan, was shot too and ended up blinded in one eye.

Out of Ayla’s death and out of Hyde’s intuition came the founding of the Children’s Law Center of Connecticut, an organization whose core service is providing legal advocates to children in highly contentious family court cases. Hyde wrote in a piece of literary writing that she shared with the Law Tribune that, after the shooting incident, she felt tired and wanted time to recuperate. But the voice inside pushed back, telling Hyde: “Now is the time when you will have people with you to make this happen.”

Twenty years later, the center represents children in eight of Connecticut’s judicial districts with plans to expand into Norwich next year if funding stays steady, according to Executive Director Justine Rakich-Kelly. The organization has been celebrating its 20th anniversary with a series of events this year, including its annual gala held on Dec. 6.

Hyde stepped back from a leadership role 10 years into the organization’s existence, but she has stayed involved as a volunteer mediator. However, Hyde’s cofounder, Debra Ruel, a family law practitioner with Rome McGuigan in Hartford, has been on the organization’s board for the past 20 years.

One thing “that always struck Judy [Hyde] as counterintuitive is that, if a parent was so dangerous that the child needed to be supervised, she wondered who was taking the child’s point of view in the courtroom,” Ruel said.

Initially, the center worked on a pro bono model, Ruel said. When Rakich-Kelly joined the organization seven years after it was founded as executive director, it was present in two judicial districts. Now it is in eight: Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, New Britain, Waterbury, Norwalk/Stamford, Tolland and Windham.

The budget was $200,000 when Rakich-Kelly joined and now has grown to $1.2 million. Thirteen years ago, the staff was just Rakich-Kelly and two half-time lawyers who had their own practices on the side. Now there are six staff attorneys, a deputy director who also handles cases, two full-time development professionals and one mental health professional.

In 2013, the center has represented 451 children in new cases and 199 kids whose cases carried over from prior years. The center’s Law Line has handled 1,235 callers.

The Families in Transition (FIT) program has conducted mediations involving 55 divorcing couples and 86 children in the past few years, Rakich-Kelly said.

In short, said Ruel, the center has become the statewide “standard of care in representing children.”

In Connecticut, there are no automatic appointments of lawyers to represent children in custody or divorce cases, So family court judges often encounter parents “with stories that are polar opposite and the court will have no idea what is really going on,” Ruel said. That’s when the Children’s Law Center gets appointed as guardians ad litem or attorneys for the minor child.

The law center also works to prevent violence toward children like that which took Ayla’s life, Ruel said, by “teaching the parents how to put aside their conflict for the best interest of the children.”

“It’s one thing to make recommendations to the judge,” Ruel added. “It’s quite another to have a vision that the parents can put aside their conflicts and not spend the child’s entire childhood fighting about where the child lives.” But that’s what the lawyers at the Children’s Law Center do every day, Ruel said.

The nonprofit is not just a legal organization, but an agency with social work and mental health threaded through its work. Having a mental health component is the “absolute linchpin” of the Children’s Law Center, Ruel said.

The Families in Transition program pairs a legal professional and a mental health professional to work with combative parents to resolve the legal issues involving their families, Ruel said. Corey Somerville, the staff’s mental health professional, keeps the children’s ages, development and needs in mind, and her observations inform the proposals the center’s lawyers make in court.

Parents are shown how conflict and return visits to court are detrimental to their kids, Ruel said.

Parents also are told that the judges don’t love their children, but the parents do, Rakich-Kelly said. Instead of divesting their authority to a judge, the FIT Program helps parents develop the tools to “effectively co-parent,” she said.

One way to measure success is if parents—whose children the center represents—never come back to court, both Ruel and Rakich-Kelly said.

The center’ staff is sensitive to the issues that families face, whether it’s substance abuse, mental health issues or poverty, Rakich-Kelly said. The staff remains “nonjudgmental and helps the family get to a place where they can overcome whatever the limitations are,” she said.

Another strength of the organization is its policy work, whether commenting on legislation or filing amicus briefs, Rakich-Kelly said.

“We really enjoy a good reputation for doing this work,” she said. “When we engage with policy work, we have credibility when we do it.”

The center has grown in its 20 years but there remains many unmet legal needs for Connecticut children, the organization’s leaders agree. Rakich-Kelly would like to see the center’s mediation program for divorcing parents “be the program that takes over the state.”

For her part, Ruel would like to see the center become a “full-service salon for all things that children need,” whether it’s legal issues involving expulsion from school, emancipation from their parents or special education. •