Ten years ago, Sharon Mills was trying to take custody of her grandkids to keep them out of foster care, when she noticed a new office on State Street: Children’s Probate Court.
Mills (at right, in photo) stepped inside 873 State St. and became one of the initial people to make use of what was then a first-of-its-kind state program. She became the legal guardian to her daughter’s two children, Jaylynn and Devan Bolarinho (center and left), with the help of the court.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mills was back as one of dozens of people who gathered at New Haven Regional Children’s Probate Court to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
Although probate courts traditionally deal with estates and assets of the deceased, they have increasingly become the venue for matters of child custody and welfare. New Haven’s children’s probate court was created specifically to deal with such probate cases, to ensure that kids and families get the attention and resources they need.
The court focuses on keeping children out of state care by placing them with family members, and providing social workers to support those families. The goal is permanent placement and stability, not multiple foster care stints.
At Wednesday’s celebration, state and city officials hailed the court as a national model for handling probate matters involving children. Since the New Haven Regional Children’s Probate Court was established, five others have been set up in the state.
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, state Sen. Martin Looney, and Mayor Toni Harp spoke at the event.
Ten years ago, it was clear the court system wasn’t serving kids, said Harp (pictured). A “fragmented system” meant that social workers and children’s advocates couldn’t keep up with the need for services, she said.
Almost immediately after the establishment of the Children’s Probate Court, it was clearly working, Harp said. Children placed with guardians stayed with them. And four out of five kids who went through the court saw their grades improve, Harp said.
“I just learned that this young lady is an honor roll student,” said, Wyman (pictured), when she stepped to the podium. She pointed to Jaylynn, seated next to her grandmother nearby.
Jaylynn later confirmed that she has been getting good grades at East Rock Magnet School.
“I’ve had them for 10 years,” grandmother Mills said of Jaylynn and Devan. “They belonged to my daughter and she couldn’t take care of them.”
“We came down here and they helped us,” Mills said. “So they wouldn’t go into the system.”
A decade ago, the probate courts weren’t as supportive as they are now, Mills said. “Back then, it wasn’t like that. They put kids wherever they could find a home.”
The court system didn’t make family placements as big of a priority, Mills said. Children do better when they’re able to live with family members, she said. When they’re “bounced around” in foster care, their grades suffer, their wellbeing suffers.
Mills said the probate court referred her to a group for grandparents raising kids, which has been very helpful.
Jack Keyes (pictured), the head judge at the children’s probate court, said the majority of the court’s cases these days involves uncles and aunts and grandparents looking to take custody of their nieces, nephews, and grandchildren.
Having a special court devoted to these situations helps the state focus on the needs of the children, Keyes said. “It’s a kid, not a case.”