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July 2024 Advocate Spotlight: Malinda Stewart

We invite you to meet Malinda Stewart, nominated by her Case Supervisor, Mike Quinn. Malinda joined Child Advocates as a volunteer in 2021 and served on a child welfare case for almost two years before taking her first Justice-Involved Youth (JIY) case in 2023.

We asked Malinda to share her experiences as an Advocate for a child in foster care and for a youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

Is there anything unique about your background that contributes to your approach to advocacy?
Advocate Malinda Stewart

As a mom to an active 10-year-old and a CISD Educator, I have a unique perspective on advocacy. Education is critical to transcend Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). When advocating for a child in care or a justice-involved youth, education is always at the forefront. Education comes through many avenues and looks different at each age. I come alongside the family or caregiver and support each child to reach for their potential. 

How did you become interested in volunteering as an Advocate?

I became interested in volunteering as an Advocate for a child in care through a combination of personal experiences and a strong desire to make a positive impact. Witnessing the struggles of children in vulnerable situations, whether through family, friends, or community work, highlighted the critical need for dedicated support and advocacy. Additionally, my passion for social justice and ensuring every child has a fair chance at a better future motivated me to take on this role. Understanding the difference that a caring, attentive Advocate can make in a child’s life inspired me to commit my time and energy to this important cause.

Did you have any reservations about volunteering?

I had none. I felt a deep conviction to get involved and not stand by wishing things to get better for the children in care that came through our schools. Our advocacy can work toward the children in care having a safe and bright future–it is our responsibility to put action where our words live. Our involvement can make a profound difference in their lives, offering them hope, guidance, and the opportunity for a brighter future. It’s also a rewarding experience, as you get to see the positive impact of your support on a child’s growth and development.

Explain in your own words the work you do as a volunteer Advocate. Why is it essential for a child?

My role involves representing and supporting the interests and rights of the child I serve. This includes ensuring the child’s voice is heard in decisions affecting their life, providing them with information about their rights, and helping them navigate the complexities of the foster care system or juvenile justice system. I work to ensure their needs are met, from securing educational support to addressing emotional and health concerns. This advocacy is crucial for children in care because they often face significant challenges and may feel powerless or unheard. By having someone dedicated to their well-being and rights, they are more likely to receive the necessary support and opportunities to thrive, ensuring their time in care is as positive and beneficial as possible.

You’ve advocated for children in foster care, and now you’re advocating for justice-involved youth. Explain how you decided to advocate for a justice-involved youth? 

My decision to advocate for justice-involved youth evolved naturally from my experiences advocating for children in foster care. While working with children in foster care, I saw firsthand how the trauma they experience can lead to many of them getting involved in the juvenile justice system due to a lack of support and resources. Recognizing the overlap between these two vulnerable populations, I felt a strong calling to extend my advocacy efforts to justice-involved youth. I realized that these young people, much like those in foster care, need someone to walk beside them as they navigate complex legal and social challenges. My goal is to ensure they receive fair treatment, appropriate rehabilitation, and the opportunity to turn their lives in a positive trajectory.

What has been the most difficult aspect of volunteering as an Advocate . . . and the most rewarding?

The most difficult aspect to me is sometimes unraveling the layers, but in the same sense it is the most rewarding also. We have the honor of working with some challenging circumstances, and they take different trajectories at times you might not expect. Life is messy and beautiful all in the same sentence. It is an honor to walk this journey with them.

What would you like the community to know about children/youth involved in the juvenile justice system?

I want the community to understand that youth involved in the juvenile justice system are often facing complex challenges and have experienced significant trauma or hardship. These young people are not defined by their mistakes but rather are individuals in need of support, guidance, and opportunities for rehabilitation and growth. Many have unmet needs related to mental health, education, and family stability. It’s crucial to approach them with empathy and recognize the potential for positive change when given the right resources and support. By investing in these youth, we can help them build better futures and strengthen our communities as a whole.

What have you learned about justice-involved youth? How has it changed your perspective on the juvenile justice system?

These young individuals often face a myriad of underlying issues, such as poverty, trauma, abuse, and lack of access to education and mental health services. Many are products of environments that fail to provide the necessary support and opportunities for healthy development. This understanding has shifted my perspective on the juvenile justice system from seeing it as a purely punitive institution to recognizing its potential for rehabilitation and support. It has highlighted the need for a more compassionate, holistic approach that addresses the root causes of delinquency, emphasizes restorative justice, and prioritizes the well-being and future potential of each youth. Montgomery County is fortunate to have Judge [Scharlene] Valdez, Montgomery County Juvenile Services, and Child Advocates working together to serve the justice-involved youth in our community. 

Is there a particular moment or memory that stands out for you?

The moments that stand out the most are the simple ones. The smiles and connection present when a child is in a safe and healthy environment. You can see a child transform from a withdrawn and sad place to one of hope for a future. These are “heart” moments that stick with you.

Anything else you want to share about Child Advocates?

To those considering if you should take up the call . . . think of the most precious person in your life. What would you do to ensure they had all the support and love they needed. Every child deserves this level of support and love. A few lyrics from one of my favorite plays–Wicked by Winnie Holzman–sums up the impact advocacy has had on me:

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them . . .
. . . Because I knew you
I have been changed for good

Change a CHILD’s story today. Impact our community forever.

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