Giving hope

Karen Littleton, Visitation and Advocacy Center assistant executive director, stands at the front window that anyone sees when they walk into the VAC on Carey Avenue (Ryan Lewallen/County 17)

A closer look at a Gillette organization giving a voice to the voiceless

GILLETTE, Wyo.— When Pam Hyde first stepped into her role as executive director of the local Visitation and Advocacy Center (VAC), she had no idea what she was getting herself into.

She only knew that she wanted to make a difference, both in Gillette and in the community’s children, and when she saw hundreds of children suffering in silence as their parents navigated their way through various court proceedings for custody, addiction, and in some cases neglect, Hyde knew exactly what she was about.

Striving to provide a safe place for child custody exchanges, parental visitation, or for new parents to seek out help feeling comfortable taking their baby home, the main idea was to make sure local kids had someone looking out for them as their lives were being torn apart in the courts.

To date, the Visitation and Advocacy Center has facilitated 11,180 child visitations and has provided 2,684 children with specially trained advocates, according to Karen Littleton, VAC assistant executive director.

After more than a decade of working with troubled families, Hyde said that it’s the family success stories that keep her going.

“You see families struggle all the time and sometimes they just need to have someone believe that they can do it,” Hyde said, adding that every child wants to go home with their families regardless of whatever situation their parents may be going through.

“If we can help in any way in the process of a family getting to a place that they can have their children be with them, that is what makes me come back every day, those success stories,” Hyde said.

Littleton agreed but unlike Hyde, she started out in the Advocacy Program when she joined the VAC seven years ago but almost immediately transferred to the Visitation Center, she said.

Hearing the success stories and seeing the kids make you come back to it, Littleton said, recalling a troubled mother with whom she had worked during her second year on the job that will still come by the VAC to talk.

“Seeing her go from losing a few children being in the system and still come out on top brings me joy., Littleton said. “Five years later, she’ll still stop by and say hi. She remembers me in a positive light.”

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Hearing the success stories and seeing the kids make you come back to it, she said.

The Visitation and Advocacy Center has three main programs: the Visitation Center, the Advocacy Program, and the Underdog Program, according to Hyde.

Visitation

Located at the organization’s building next door to the Post Office on Carey Avenue, the Visitation Center is a free service that parents can use, on their own or through a court order, as a mutually safe environment for child custody exchanges, Hyde said.

Additionally, VAC staff can assist parents struggling with communication by providing light mediation and can help parents file paperwork with the courts.

At some point in the next year, Hyde continued, the VAC would like to start providing co-parenting courses.

Advocate

The Advocacy Program utilizes volunteers from the community who are put through rigorous training before being sworn in as a court-appointed special advocate by a district court judge. Advocates are then assigned a wide array of cases ranging from child neglect and abuse to dirty homes or a family struggling with addiction, Hyde said.

No matter the case, however, the role of the advocate stays the same: to meet with the kids, develop a relationship with them, and make sure those kids have everything they need. Advocates are required to meet with their kids at least once a month, Hyde said, though most of them meet much more often than that.

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A stone with the term CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocate, printed on it stands outside the VAC on Carey Avenue (Ryan Lewallen/County 17)

“The main focus for the program is the best interest of the child; giving them hope, in a situation where sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is any,” Hyde said, adding that being an advocate is hard and that they’ll often hear, see, or read things that they wish they hadn’t while they look out for their kids.

It’s a role that the VAC struggles to find candidates for; in the last 10 years, nearly 600 children went without an advocate. Of the 186 children currently assigned to the VAC, only 75 of them have one of the organization’s 43 advocates, according to Hyde.

The biggest challenge when it comes to finding advocate volunteers is getting the awareness out into the community, Hyde said, which primarily happens by word of mouth despite the VAC making appearances at community events.

Oftentimes, would-be volunteers choose not to become advocates because they don’t think they’ll have time to make court appearances, but that’s what the VAC staff are there for, Hyde said, to be there if the advocate can’t be.

“It’s about giving a child hope, the belief that things are going to be okay, and making sure they get the resources they need,” Hyde said.  “It’s really about investing in our future because the kids of our community are our future.”

Underdog

The Underdog Program is the smallest arm of the VAC, comprised of only two members: a 6-year-old German Shepherd named Jamboree and her handler, Laurie Schwabauer.

Originally, when Hyde brought Jamboree into the fold the idea was to get her into the courtroom to help victims when they testify because dogs can have a calming effect on adults and kids, she said.

Jamboree, a six-year-old German Shepherd, assists the VAC as a service dog for clients and kids (Ryan Lewallen/County 17)

Unfortunately, Jamboree’s breed became an obstacle, according to Hyde, who said that as a German Shepherd, Jamboree is often viewed as a police dog and comes across as intimidating.

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Intimidation, however, is not in Jamboree’s repertoire; she’ll often sit at people’s feet when she senses they’re about to have a panic attack or if they’re willing, will even climb up on their laps. Jamboree originally started out her service career as a personal companion for Schwabauer, though she was ultimately retrained to work with the VAC.

Jamboree’s breed doesn’t spell the end of the road for the Underdog Program, according to Hyde, who said that the VAC has written a grant application to a foundation in California who, if approved, will provide them with a dog that is certified in the courtroom.

“We are in hopes that within the next year we will be the first in Wyoming to have a court-appointed facility K9 so that they can go into the courtroom and testify with the victims,” Hyde said.