Wednesday, August 26, 2009
The Teddy Bear Attorney: Providing Comfort to Children in Court System
By a MetNews Staff Writer
On a recent Friday morning,
two young boys enter Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Margaret S. Henry's
courtroom, gazing around wide-eyed and
clearly frightened. They have been removed from their mother's custody and are at the Edelman Children's Court to find out where they were going to go.
Hesitantly, they climb into the gray felt swivel chairs and sit. Their heads do not rise above the seat back and their feet do not reach the floor.
A bailiff approaches and hands each of them a bright blue teddy bear. The boys accept the plush toys wordlessly and hug them tightly to their chests.
Throughout the hearing, they never let go. As they leave, the elder boy buries the lower part of his face into his bear while the younger one holds his bear by the paw, as if holding hands with another family member. The judge and a large stack of brightly colored bears remain in the courtroom, awaiting the next matter.
Caring for Court Kids
The bears are provided by a program called Comfort for Court Kids, the brainchild of Sherman Oaks attorney Ernestine Fields.
"Every child that comes in gets a bear, period," Fields declares emphatically. "They're not toys, they're healing bears."
For the children coming through the doors, their "whole world is upside down," Fields explains. "We've got children who have been mistreated, being away from their parents, coming to a strange building, not knowing what will happen to them."
Because "all children recognize a teddy bear as a symbol of love and affection," getting a teddy bear makes the children "feel loved, safe, and like someone cares about them," Fields says.
But even more importantly, it also "sends a really strong message of re-enforcement that they are good children."
As the victims of alleged physical or sexual abuse or serious neglect, many of the children have been removed from their homes, she continues. Since "little kids tend to blame themselves for things that happen in a family," Fields says, "they're still feeling badly when they're brought here, and they think they have caused this big earthquake in their family, so when they get a brand new bear, it causes them to think 'I must be O.K., I must be a good child or else this person wouldn't be giving me this bear.' "
Fields' voice starts to quaver slightly, betraying her emotions.
"It's not the children's fault that they're here," she declares. "They're wonderful children, just like your children and my children, but fate has given them a rough road to go on."
Every four weeks, 4,200 specially-made teddy bears are delivered to the Edelman Children's Court by the Fiesta Corporation and distributed by court bailiffs who volunteer their time to haul the 173 cases up from the loading docks. More than 700,000 bears have been given out since the program began in 1991.
The style and design of the bears change seasonally, with the bears for July bedecked in red, white and blue bows and the bears for August having a forest theme.
Each is approved by the Department of Children and Family Services as to quality and cost about $2.50, Fields says. They are also specially designed to be "extra-soft" in filling and their plush coat.
Janice Johnson, services administrator for the court shelter care program, remarks that "you'd think these little details won't make a difference, but it really does."
The teddy bears are a theme that is carried on throughout the court, Johnson says, from the murals by the elevators in the parking lot, to the hallways, to the courtrooms.
Los Angeles Superior Court Referee Robert Stevenson says he has seen the effect the bears have on children in his courtroom.
"The kids love the bears," he remarks. "They look at me and smile, and I know what they want, they want a bear."
'The Best Stuffed Animals'
Teddy bears, Fields opines, "are the best stuffed animals," explaining that "kids can't hug a turtle or a duck the same way they can hug a teddy bear,"
Because "the configuration of a teddy bear is like a human body," she says children "identify with them," adding that they often name the bear after family members or themselves.
"It's the most amazing thing," Fields says. "It makes you wonder, how can it be that a $2.50 bear can mean so much to a child?"
But the $2.50 price tag, she discloses, is starting to become prohibitively expensive. "It's been the worst year to raise money," she admits, adding that the program was probably going to have to start using smaller bears and figure out a way to not give them to everyone.
She estimates that Los Angeles County has approximately 27,000 children in the court's jurisdiction and laments, "How can you pick and choose?"
'Never Into Bears'
As a child, Fields says she was "never into bears," and "can't even remember having a teddy bear growing up."
But her office, which she recently vacated to make room for another court program, was filled to overflowing with teddy bears, and her car sports a "TEDYATY" license plate.
The diminutive attorney laughs and says, "some people think that I've turned into a teddy bear."
Fields says she shifted the focus of her practice to family law 18 months ago, but that she had spent the 20 years before that doing dependency work.
Law, she says, was her fourth career, following stints as a teacher, then a wife and mother, and then a real estate agent.
Once she was admitted to the State Bar in 1988, she says, she dabbled in various areas of law representing adults, but "could not focus into it." On a friend's suggestion, she then tried her hand in dependency and "fell in love with it."
The only problem, she says, was that "I couldn't handle all of the crying that I witnessed everyday."
She recalls that the court clerk would give the children the courtroom's doorstops—one of which was shaped like a hippopotamus and the other like a pig—to hold when they became upset.
"The kids would hold it, wipe their nose on it, wipe their tears on it…and the tears turned off like turning off a spigot," she says.
Fields says she started going around collecting stuffed animals from her friends to take to court and give to the children, but was later informed that it was a violation of the Health Code to distribute used animals.
"So I incorporated," she says, with a smile. "I made this program happen so that the kid's won't fall apart and cry."
While she maintains that anyone who can get the money to buy the bears can run a program like hers, she says proudly that this "is the only one in the world for a court."
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company