Children and their rights have concerned Beth Gillia since shortly after she earned a J.D. in 1997 from the University of New Mexico School of Law. After a clerkship with the New Mexico Court of Appeals, she became an associate judge on the tribal court at Isleta Pueblo, where she presided over child welfare cases. Her docket also included criminal, delinquency and civil cases.
When she left the court in 2002, Gillia spent a year at the Albuquerque Women's Resource Center, working on behalf of domestic violence victims. An interest in that work expanded into children's issues when she joined the Judicial Education Center at the Institute of Public Law (IPL) in 2003. One of her projects was to update the New Mexico Children's Law Handbook, a comprehensive resource guide to the state's child abuse and neglect process for the New Mexico judiciary and other members of the child welfare community. She also created tutorials and moderated an online domestic violence course for judges.
Gradually, she shifted her entire focus to children's issues, becoming a senior staff attorney at IPL's Corinne Wolfe Children's Law Center (CLC) in 2005. In February 2011, she took over as the center's director. She also serves as chair of the State Bar's Children's Law Section.
At the CLC, Gillia has helped revise the Children's Law Handbook, edits best practices bulletins, and provides summaries of children's law cases and other technical assistance for lawyers for children and parents. She also organizes role-specific and cross-training for judges and lawyers who represent both children and parents in child abuse and neglect cases. Every year, she participates in organizing the annual Children's Law Institute, which brings together New Mexico professionals and volunteers across disciplines who work in the child welfare community.
Gillia also manages the Court Improvement Project Training Grant, which has two key components: core training for lawyers and judges new to children's court and cross-training for all of the professionals and volunteers working in the child welfare system. When the CLC first received the training grant, Gillia helped to design the core training, which has become an annual two-day training, "in which we take lawyers and judges through the entire civil children's court process, from the initial report of abuse or neglect through the appeals process, covering the many in-court and out-of-court proceedings unique to this system," she said.
The second component of the training grant is annual cross-training for everyone working in the child welfare system, focusing on a different special interest topic every year. The 2011 cross-training, titled, Collaborative Responses to Domestic Violence and Child Abuse and Neglect, will take place on Aug. 12.
"This year's cross-training will be a summit that broadens the scope of these trainings by including both domestic violence advocates and child welfare practitioners," said Gillia. "Hopefully this summit will be a first step in building a better relationship between two systems that work with the same families, families experiencing child maltreatment and intimate partner violence."
As CLC director, Gillia's goals include making permanent what is now a pilot lawyer mentoring program and a one-day training for court-appointed special advocate staff and Citizen Review Board members that builds on the core training currently offered to judges and lawyers. The training would be an overview of the legal process and the roles and responsibilities of those involved in child abuse and neglect cases.
She also hopes to expand the center's offerings in the area of juvenile justice, developing delinquency-specific training for juvenile defenders, prosecutors, probation officers and judges, as well as periodically updating the center's newly published New Mexico Juvenile Justice Handbook.
Gillia, a mother herself, knows the challenges of raising children and the importance of providing a safe environment for them.
"If we are to have a meaningful and productive future as a society, all of our children need to live in a safe environment and feel confident about who they are," she said. "No one should have to live in fear.
"To this end, we work on children's issues from the system side," she said. "Although we don't drive policy, we help inform policy discussions with technical assistance and research, and once policies are adopted, we provide critically needed training to everyone who is impacted. When each piece of the system works, the people who benefit most are the children and families we are here to serve."
She and Education Coordinator Tracey Kincaid are the center's only full-time employees. They are assisted by four on-call lawyers, and experts are brought in to conduct the trainings as needed. Their days are always full: in early June, the center published the first New Mexico Juvenile Justice Handbook, designed as a legal resource on delinquency. The fourth edition of the Children's Law Handbook will be released shortly.
Often faced with not enough hours in the work day for all she wants to get done, Gillia couldn't be happier. "I love this work," she said. "It feels important, like we make a real difference."
July 12, 2011