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Testimony provided by Kathryn Cortes to the House of Representatives on the amendment to the Children’s Bill of Rights

House of Representatives

Relating to State Affairs and Government – Department of Children, Youth and Families

June 17, 2014

2014 Bill# 2835

TESTIMONY FROM THE OFFICE OF CHILD ADVOCATE – KATHRYN R. CORTES

            Thank you Chairman McNamara, and all other committee members for allowing me to provide this written testimony on behalf of the Office of the Child Advocate (OCA).  Also, we want to express our gratitude to Senators’ Goldin, Cool Rumsey, Miller, Pichardo and Sosnowski for sponsoring and supporting this amendment.

            The OCA is providing this testimony in support of this amendment to the Children’s Bill of Rights (RIGL 42-72-15).  This amendment is requested to include non-discrimination language in the Children’s Bill of Rights, that would support all youth, and therefore acknowledges, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression; as well as youth with a physical, mental or sensory disability who are under the care of the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).

            The OCA is the guardian of the Children’s Bill of Rights.  The Children’s Bill of Rights provides children in DCYF care, through the OCA, with a mechanism to protect their legal and civil rights, when they are open to DCYF and placed in out of home facilities. 

            I have spent the last 20 years working with youth under the care of DCYF.  I began my career employed in a residential group home where young boys resided for an array of reasons, including abuse, neglect, behavioral and mental health issues.  I transferred to the Rhode Island Training School and was a program director for a private contractor that provided clinical services within the facility.  I have been employed for nearly 8 years at the OCA.  Throughout my career I have witnessed many changes in our youth and the struggles they face.  I have become particularly sensitive to the challenges of youth in placements who are struggling with their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.  This struggle is often exacerbated for youth in state care by the trauma and abuse many have experienced.  Additionally, many of our young children are already experiencing significant mental health issues.  It is particularly challenging when these struggles are difficult for parents and family to address in clinical relationships with their children.  This response is often the result of the broader systems’ and the communities’ failure to acknowledge the discrimination and stigma associated. 

            The passage of this amendment to the Children’s Bill of Rights and will provide ALL children with the protections they need and are entitled too.  It appears more and more youth are facing difficulties with their identities and often struggle to make sense of their feelings.  With this inclusion to the Children’s Bill of Rights it will help to reduce any stigma or discrimination associated for these youth.  In turn, hopefully it will be a first step in validating these youth’s personal preferences and it will allow children to comfortably express themselves.  It is intended to recognize the individual identity of the young people in placement with DCYF.  It is our hope it will give them the support and protections they need to obtain the services they need to address their individual needs while under the care of DCYF.  As youth struggling with so many issues that are difficult for them to understand, we as adults also find it difficult to understand these issues at times; however, it is not for the adults in their lives to understand or judge but rather to support and embrace these youth in every aspect of their care, treatment and mental well-being.

            This is an extremely vulnerable population of children in state care.  These youth are clearly in need of extra supports, civil rights protections, and protections from discrimination, abuse, neglect, bullying or otherwise due to their Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression; as well as physical, developmental or sensory disabilities. This amendment to the Children’s Bill of Rights is not only in the best interest of youth, but is also a safe, supportive and all-encompassing mechanism to protect this vulnerable population of children, including but not limited to youth that suffer from developmental, physical or sensory disabilities.

            The OCA is hopeful that with passage of this amendment, youth in state care will begin to experience more positive interactions with the adults and peers involved in their day to day life.  It is our hope that these additional supports will strengthen their resolve and allow them to express themselves in any way they identify or feel comfortable with, without fear of retribution.

            Thank you again for your time and allowing me the opportunity to advocate for the best interest of our states most vulnerable youth, the youth in State care.

Respectfully submitted,

Kathryn R. Cortes
Senior Monitoring & Evaluation Specialist