BRIDGEWATER TOWNSHIP (NJ)
TAP into Bridgewater/Raritan [Bridgewater NJ]
January 3, 2022
By Brenda Esler
Retired Superior Court Judge Thomas Dilts handled child abuse cases for 16 of his 20 years as a family court judge serving Somerset and Hunterdon Counties.
Presiding over an average of 120 cases per week, he saw each day as an opportunity to make an impact in the lives of children and families.
As he approached retirement, Dilts knew that he wanted to continue to help children who have been abused and neglected, and realized there was more work to be done from the other side of the bench. He shared this vision in his retirement speech, and, within a week, 15 colleagues answered the call to action, forming the Children’s Hope Initiative in fall 2011.
Eleven of the original 15 board members continue to serve the organization today.
Statistics shared on their website, ChildrensHopeInitiative.org, underscore the critical needs the organization works to address. In the United States, a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds and five children die every day as the result of child abuse. Children who experience abuse or neglect are at risk of continuing the cycle – about 30% will go on to abuse their own children.
Children’s Hope Initiative’s mission is to meet the unmet needs of abused and neglected children and their families by providing resources for existing organizations in Somerset County. Because they are fully volunteer-led with nominal overhead costs covered by board donations, they are able to distribute every dollar raised to directly fund youth programs and services. Since their inception, they have raised a total of $578,000 in donations, including over $100,000 raised within the past year.
“Every year, people come forward with such abundance and generosity,” said Dilts. “It is amazingly rewarding to see the people who care about children and trust us to know that we are doing what we can do to help them.”
The process of addressing unmet needs begins with asking the experts. Children’s Hope Initiative surveys a network of over 15 Somerset County organizations that serve abused and neglected youth, and, with this input, they develop a three-year plan. The most recent plan, created in October 2020, identified mental health services, mentoring and tutoring as priorities, as well as support for immigrant children who have experienced trauma, and opportunities for children to participate in fun activities.
To date, Children’s Hope Initiative has funded 15 unique programs benefiting 1,100 children. Their support helped Richard Hall Community Health and Wellness Center create the Summer Connections program, providing youth with a three-week day camp experience with activities such as equine therapy, karate, arts therapy and music therapy, all free of charge to participants.
Funding provided to Middle Earth has allowed them to expand many programs such as lunchtime mentoring, Visions Plus, Promises Plus, fun field trips and after school programs. Recent funding awarded to Catholic Charities helped them establish youth and family counseling services in Manville and Franklin.
Their support has allowed Family and Community Services to cut waiting times in half for mental health counseling for youth coping with traumatic experiences.
The full three-year plan and additional details about the funded programs and services can be found at ChildrensHopeInitiative.org under the “our programs” tab.
Behind the successful fundraising efforts and charitable giving is a culture of compassion that drives the organization. Dilts is known for providing encouragement to the families that appeared in his courtroom.
Attorney Colleen McCarthy, one of the founding board members of Children’s Hope Initiative who remains involved to this day, recalls Dilts’s respectful manner of speaking to families.
“No matter what his decision was, he always explained it well, so you understood where the decision was coming from and there was a valid basis for it,” McCarthy said.
Dilts said his role was to be a judge, but not to be judgemental.
“Everyone is capable of abusing a child in the wrong circumstance,” said Dilts. “My job was to get people from where they were, to where they needed to be.” said Dilts.
Visit ChildrensHopeInitiative.org for more information.