By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – For 23 years, Carmela Mone, founder of the Children’s Law Office of Otsego County, has been the advocate for youngsters who may not have anyone else in their corner.
“I had a 4-year-old old boy whose mom had filed petitions to stop visits with the father, but I couldn’t get her to bring the kid in,” she said. “I sent our social worker, Karen Geasey, to see the kid at school, and she told me he was in dire straits – non-verbal, neglected.”
She contacted the county Department of Social Services, which declined to file a neglect case, so shes opened one herself. “I tried to support the mother,” she said. “But in the end, the child went into foster care, and it saved his life.”
He was soon adopted, and now when she sees him, he’s thriving, talking and doing well in school. “He wouldn’t be if our office hadn’t intervened,” she said.
Now, after taking more than 4,000 cases to court, representing more than 3,000 children, Mone is retiring to join her husband Louis in Flagstaff, Ariz. “I’m very lucky,” she said. “I have the best clients. I’ll miss these kids, they make me laugh.”
She got her law degree from Albany Law, but didn’t learn about children’s law until 1987, working for a firm in Schenectady. “I saw that one of their attorneys was assigned to cases with kids,” she said. “I told him I was interested, and he let me take on one of the cases.”
Soon, it became the entirety of her caseload. “By then, it was all I wanted to do,” she said.
She opened the Children’s Law office on Oct. 28, 1998. “The state has lawyers who can do children’s law everywhere, but there are relatively few offices,” she said. “There are more children who need attorneys than there are attorneys who are trained to do the work.”
Her daughter, Meghan Cirelli, also works for the firm, as does Sarah Callen, another attorney. “It’s a group effort,” she said.
Her other daughter, Rosemarie, is a mental health counselor in Burlington, Vt. “She has very good insights,” she said. “Sometimes we’ll talk about our cases.”
Though the office was previously known as the Law Guardian of Otsego County, the title has changed to better reflect what they do. “People thought we were given guardianship of the children,” she said. “That’s never been what we do here.”
She exclusively represents children, from a day old in the hospital to 18, or up to 21 if they are in foster care. “We represent in custody, visitation, abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency or a child in need of supervision,” she said.
Though she found much of her job rewarding, much of the struggle came from lack of resources. “It’s difficult to find services,” she said. “There aren’t enough services for child’s mental health or in-patient drug rehab facilities.”
And with many of her cases being children in custody battles, the parents themselves sometimes don’t realize the damage they’re doing to the kids. “If I had a magic wand, I would show parents what their fighting does to their children,” she said. “They believe they love their kids, but they’re destroying them. I try to get them to agree so that they don’t have to fight in court.”
She also advocates for children to help their parents learn to be a stronger family unit. “I had two very small children who were developmentally delayed and their parents didn’t know how to care for them,” she said. “We were able to get them into Springbrook as day students and teach the parents some special needs care.”