Justice Studies graduates take their passion for advocacy into the legal and political arenas. Read their stories in this four-part series.
Attorney Katelyn Medeiros ’10 works for an agency tasked with protecting the rights and interests of more than 7,000 children in the care and/or custody of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).
She is assistant child advocate in the Office of the Child Advocate (OCA), a fast-paced, high-stress, high-volume office – a good fit for this RIC alumna, whose energy seems indefatigable.
As an independent state agency, the OCA functions as a watchdog to DCYF with the right to intervene in any case where a child’s legal, civil or special rights are not being met. If a resolution cannot be reached, the OCA can initiate litigation on the child’s behalf, including bring suit against DCYF.
Medeiros’ first introduction to the OCA was in law school at Roger Williams University. She interned at the OCA for six months and was far enough along in her law program to present cases in court under the supervision of an attorney.
Yet it was her internship at Rhode Island College, she said, that informed the work that she does today. A double major in justice studies and sociology, Medeiros took a course with Professor of Sociology Jill Harrison that included an internship assignment in the visiting unit of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections Women’s Facility, where she planned activities for children and their mothers.
“I think that experience made me a better lawyer,” she said. “From it I gained a more holistic perspective. I was able to see both sides – that of the parent and of the child. I recognized that these parents may have had bad childhoods themselves and had made mistakes. They were people who didn’t necessarily have malice intent in their heart. But the one thing that was common among most of them was that they genuinely loved their children, and you could see what a painful experience it was for them to be apart.”
Today Medeiros fiercely advocates for children, yet maintains that holistic perspective. She noted that many of the neglect cases the OCA deals with are generational, meaning the parents themselves grew up in the DCYF system and had similar experiences that their children are now having.
“Some of the parents were just a child on our caseload two years ago,” she said, “and now they’re parents facing the same fate that their parents did. We try to break the cycle.”
As assistant child advocate, her primary focus is legislative advocacy, policy reform and public education. This year she and Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith, Esq., her supervisor, testified before the General Assembly in support of the Voluntary Extension of Care Act, a bill that allows young adults to voluntarily remain in DCYF care until they’re 21. Extension of care is meant to support youth in their transition to higher education, job training and the workforce. The bill went into effect July 1.
The agency’s oversight also extends to monitoring all facilities licensed by DCYF, including group homes, foster homes and day cares. The OCA exposed gross negligence at two group homes run by the Blackstone Valley Youth and Family Collaborative earlier this year. Along with rampant drug use and general lack of staff supervision, one staff member was charged with human trafficking of underage girls under the care of DCYF.
“This is the reason we do this work,” Medeiros said.
As a member of the OCA Child Fatality Panel, Medeiros reviews any child fatality or near fatality caused by abuse and/or neglect, and Medeiros oversees the grant which funds the OCA’s Project Victims Services. This program assists child victims of physical or sexual abuse, including sex trafficking, and children who witness domestic violence.
If the many problems children face in state care seem bewilderingly widespread, it may help to know that reports from the committees Medeiros sits on have led to systematic changes in policy.
“Our job at the end of the day is to protect children, promote the best interest of children and ensure that the actions of DCYF work toward tracking a case the way it should be,” she said.
Social workers are the OCA’s largest population of callers who want and need the extra support, noted Medeiros. In the last three years. The OCA has released large-scale reports, many of which are in support of DCYF workers, ensuring that they obtain more resources and frontline staff to provide the level of service that their cases require.
“Many of the social workers we work with are graduates of Rhode Island College,” Medeiros added. “We’re a huge supporter of RIC’s School of Social Work. Each year we take on master’s and bachelor’s-level students to assist with the initiatives in our office.”
“I’m very blessed to work with such passionate and committed colleagues who have a wealth of experience and knowledge and who are committed to children in state care and to the betterment of their lives,” she said. “I think everyone who works in this field are committed. I don’t think you get into this field for the glory.”
“Someone gave me some advice early in my career and I keep myself in check with it every day,” she said. The advice was: ‘If I can end the day knowing I did something for one child then I did my job that day.’”
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