In 1996, Bernadette Melton-Plante was working full-time for Big Brother Big Sister in Nashua when she attended a community presentation about CASA of New Hampshire and the need for volunteer advocates. Intrigued by the program, she applied, and for the next 5½ years, she served as a volunteer advocate before becoming aware of a position that was open for a program manager at CASA. After she was hired in 2002, she worked supervising volunteer advocates for 6 or 7 years before being promoted to program director.
Tell me a bit about your work at CASA, first as a program manager and now as a program director.
It’s incredibly enlightening to be a program manager because you have this wonderful contact with your advocates. Our advocates come to us from all parts of life and I think that one of the things I thoroughly enjoyed was that I was constantly learning from them. Our advocates have worked for school systems, for the police department, people who work in department stores, or in nursing homes. So there’s just a huge array of professions and everyone brings something really different to the table. It’s always so interesting to look at this job from the perspective of a new advocate and how they look at the cases that come in.
For the last 10 years I’ve also had the pleasure of supervising our program managers and I really, really enjoy doing that. I think it’s given me the opportunity to share the skills and knowledgebase that I have acquired over the years. It’s interesting discussing cases with the program managers, helping them problem solve, coaching them to come up with appropriate recommendations to help their advocates prepare for court and although I’m not sort of first hand down in the trenches, I’m still able to stay very involved with the families that we serve by working with the program managers. I’ve learned a lot from the program managers, too. I’ve learned a lot about people’s learning styles, and again, how they assess different situations. And I would like to think the staff have learned a lot from me, too.
What are some of the biggest changes you seen during your time with CASA?
There’s been changes at the state level legislatively. Some of the legislative changes have certainly benefited the families we work with. But we’ve also seen a reduction in specialized homes to work with young children who’ve experienced trauma. There were more options 8 or 9 years ago and we do have a lot of children in the state of New Hampshire who’ve been significantly traumatized and need to be moved out of state because we don’t have the programs to provide to them.
I think the complexity of the cases, the criminal components, obviously the influx of the heroin epidemic it’s harder for people to get into recovery now because there is such a long waiting list and the courts only give the families 12 months to change the behaviors that brought them into the system and often those timelines don’t always match up.
When I was fairly new to this there were a lot of preventative services that were available to the families that we work with. There was something called voluntary cases where the division did not have to file a petition. They could work with the families and provide them with services to try to keep them out of the court system. That has disappeared but I’m really thrilled to say it’s now being reintroduced to the state and some of those services have been made available again.
It’s a very emotional subject matter that CASA deals with. What motivates you to want to come in to work every day?
I know this sounds really corny, but I honestly can say I enjoy coming into work every single day because I really don’t know how my day is going to look. I’ll have a pre-planned day, but very rarely does it go like that.
I’ve always had a passion for working with children, even going back to my teens I would work in a lot of camps in England during the summer period. But, look, the bottom line is every child deserves a safe and permanent home and that’s the motivator right there.
You’ve seen hundreds of cases over the years, is there one that sticks out as particularly memorable?
One of the things I was most impressed with was one of the first cases that I was working on as an advocate. The two parents had created a lifestyle of robbing banks and there was a young child that was with them. They were finally arrested and incarcerated awaiting trial and we had this adorable little 6-month-old child. I have to say I was incredibly impressed with the way DCYF worked in trying to find family members for this little baby because neither of the biological parents, who were incarcerated, were giving up any information. A maternal grandmother was found in Ohio and I had the opportunity to have a lot of communication with this grandmother due to the fact that I was visiting with the child. Eventually she came to New Hampshire multiple visits were set up and this child eventually was moved to Ohio to live with her maternal grandmother. The way everyone worked together as a team, it was so focused on the best interest of this child and we had the support of the court as well. It will stick with me for the rest of my life, no question.