In Modesto Judge Ann Ameral's courtroom, a 7-year-old girl sat in the witness box for two hours describing years of sexual abuse inflicted by her mother's boyfriend.
Before the girl took the stand, Ameral reached for a furry teddy bear clad in an outfit made by a local quilting group. A small comfort, to be sure, but Ameral believes it gave the girl the strength to make it through the hearing.
"She was really grabbing that bear," Ameral said Wednesday from her chambers in Stanislaus County Superior Court, where 20 bears were lined up on a bookshelf.
"Just imagine these small kids (knowing) they're being taken away from their parents," Ameral said.
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Every week, dozens of county children are brought into Modesto's dependency court. Many have been abused or neglected by parents or caregivers so strung out on drugs they don't properly feed or clothe their children. Sexual and physical assault is common, Ameral said.
The children may no longer be suffering physical or emotional abuse, but they still face the trauma and uncertainty of what can turn into years of court proceedings to determine who will take care of them.
That's why Modesto dentist Dr. Elizabeth Demichelis founded Stanislaus County's teddy bear program in 2004. Since then, nearly 500 of the fluffy toys have been given to children, and some mentally disabled adults, in the courtroom after being outfitted in vests hand-stitched by a Modesto quilters' group. This group includes Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Susan Siefkin.
Demichelis said she was inspired to start the program after reading a magazine in a doctor's waiting room describing a similar project. Called Comfort For Court Kids, the Southern California-based charity has given away more than 900,000 bears since 1991.
"I know when I go to jury duty, I get intimidated," Demichelis said. "So I would think, (for) a child, going to a custody hearing would be traumatic (for) them."
Demichelis said some of these children never have been given anything new, so receiving a gift — one of the teddy bears — can bolster their sense of self-worth.
Court Appointed Special Advocates of Stanislaus County, or CASA, is charged with distributing the teddy bears to Modesto judges, attorneys and child advocates who hand them out to needy children who can hold them in court, then take them home afterward.
CASA Executive Director Steve Ashman said he hopes to expand the program to include children required to testify as witnesses in criminal cases.
"It's really a frightening experience," Ashman said. "You have kids who are removed from their families, and they're removed from everything and anything they know. We're trying to make the system a little warmer and fuzzier."
Demichelis does not have children of her own and says she relishes the opportunity to bring some measure of security to children whose innocence has been shattered much too early.
"I guess you could say these are sort of my kids, and my chance to bring them some happiness, if ever so slightly," she said.
People who want to donate money to the teddy bear program can contact CASA of Stanislaus County at 525-6674 or e-mail Steve Ashman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.