Monday, January 12, 2015
L. ERNESTINE FIELDS
Feisty Octogenarian Is Known as the ‘Teddy Bear Attorney’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
alking rapidly through the halls of Children’s Court in Monterey Park, L. Ernestine Fields is an unmistakable figure.
Passing by desks and offices, greeting everyone, she is in a hurry. She has so much to do, and no time to slow down.
At an age when some start thinking about retirement, Fields went to law school, being admitted to the State Bar at age 57. Asked her current age, she says, “I was born in 1931, let [the reader] figure it out.”
She maintains a full-time practice as a court-appointed minor’s counsel in probate, family law, and dependency cases.
And as if that didn’t keep her busy enough, she is still “the Teddy Bear attorney,” running Comfort for Kids, Inc.—the nonprofit corporation she started to guarantee that every child in dependency court receives a teddy bear—from a tiny office in the Children’s Court building.
Her parents, Felix and Gertrude Willis, met back east during the Depression and came to California looking for work. Her New York-born father and and Boston-reared mother ran a grocery store on the old City of Hope grounds in Duarte.
An engagement photo of Fields with her husband, Josh Fields.
A graduate of Los Angeles High School and UCLA, where she majored in psychology and education and minored in English literature, she became a school teacher, working at several schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and marrying Josh Fields, a prominent heart surgeon. She also sold real estate.
Her husband had a daughter, Karen Fields, now a physician herself. They have one child together, Candice Fields, now an attorney in Sacramento.
Night Law School
Fields says she needed a new challenge after she and her husband divorced, and went to San Fernando Valley College of Law, attending four years at night.
“I used to kid about it,” she says. “Of the women in my class, most of them were ex-doctor’s wives.
“I couldn’t face medical school but wanted an advanced degree that would let me help people. I loved the intellectual challenge of becoming a lawyer.”
But in doing so, she says, she recognized that her age, and the fact that she went to school at night, made it unlikely she would be hired by a large law firm. Fortunately, she reflects, after being admitted in December 1988, San Fernando Valley family law attorney Barbara Jean Penny “took me under her wing.”
The two shared an office, Fields notes. She initially practiced family law, but was put off by the contentious nature of that sort of practice, she says.
Then a judge suggested she learn about juvenile dependency law. Once she began concentrating on dependency cases, Fields says, she realized that she didn’t need an office.
“I saw those little kids and I fell in love,” she recounts. “I was appointed to one of the panels they had at that time.”
Her first client, she says, “was a little boy, four years old, and his grandmother wanted to become his guardian.”
Fields recalls the scene vividly.
“A little boy dressed in a little tweed suit, with a bow tie, looked at me and said ‘Who are you?’ and I said ‘I am your attorney.’ ”
Atmosphere Was ‘Awful’
Dependency cases in Van Nuys were being heard in trailers that had been temporarily placed in the courthouse parking lot, she brings to mind. It was “awful,” she says, as the fears and anxieties that are normal in dependency played out amid cramped conditions.
Under dependency procedure, when children are considered at risk of abuse or neglect and removed from their homes by social workers, a hearing is held within 72 hours to determine whether the children will be allowed to go home or “detained”—placed in foster care.
She remembers one case in which a boy and girl were told they would not be going home with their mother.
“The girl stood up screaming ‘mama, mama,’ tears streaming down her face,” Fields relates. “The mother was just paralyzed. She said ‘I’ll visit you, I’ll visit you.’ It was just pathetic. The bailiff had to get her to leave.”
As she saw the children being take out the back of the courtroom, she says, “I knew I just had to do something to help the children and the parents get through the days when the kids were detained.”
After practicing for about a year and having watched scenes like that “any number of times,” and drawing on her experience as a kindergarten teacher, Fields explains, she began thinking of ways to create a calming environment for the children.
“As a teacher, you can’t let kids cry in the classroom,” she says. “….You have to comfort the children, you have to find out why they’re crying.”
Her initial idea, she says, was to provide the children with stuffed animals—of any sort, not just teddy bears—and secured them “from everyone I knew,” commenting:
“And the kids would hold them and not cry.”
In this photo, L. Ernestine Fields shows a trunk full of teddy bears to be given to children at Children’s Court.
Pretty soon, the judges and the court staff took notice and began distributing animals in the courtrooms. One of those was Judge Michael Nash, who went on to become presiding juvenile court judge and an ongoing partner in Fields’ efforts.
That lasted about a year, until a police detective who was a witness in a case pointed out that distribution of used stuffed animals violated health regulations. After court, the detective took her to the children’s holding area in the courthouse, where the police provided children with new stuffed animals.
“I thought that was the end,” she says. “Where was I going to get the money for new stuffed animals?”
Realizing that the only way to do it was to form a nonprofit corporation, with a board of directors and meetings and bylaws and a fundraising plan, she didn’t think she was up to it, she says now. She credits a bailiff, Timothy Farrone, with convincing her she had to keep the project going.
Fortunately, she says, she had some contacts in the nonprofit world, including Jules Lesner, a retired school administrator who had gone to work for the Milken Family Foundation, and who had three children whom Fields had taught.
She met with Lesner, who asked her why the foundation should support her project when it had so many requests from other worthy applicants.
“Jules, you have to do this,” she recalls telling him. “These children go through such heartache when they are separated from their mothers….For some reason these little bears make such a huge difference for them.”
It worked, she says, noting that the foundation has supported her organization since 1992.
In the meantime, she had done some research, and had come to the conclusion that a teddy bear is the ideal type of animal to give out “because it has the configuration of a person.”
That conclusion, of course, led to an obvious question—where to get all those teddy bears?
Initially, Fields says, she went to toy jobbers “all over downtown,” loading bears into plastic trash bags and carrying them into the courthouse. Eventually, the head custodian offered to help get them distributed, until union objections put an end to that.
“So how do you deliver bears to a six-story building with closed hallways?” she remembers asking herself. And while she cannot recall all of the details of how it came about, the solution came from the bailiffs.
“That was years and years and thousands and thousands of bears ago,” she says. A group of bailiffs, who have been “more than wonderful,” she says, give up their lunch break every three weeks to deliver 2700 bears to the courtrooms.
“We supply every child 4 years old and older with a bear every time they come to court,” she notes.
The project has come a long way since the early days, she notes. She no longer uses jobbers, instead ordering all of the bears from Fiesta Corporation, the country’s largest manufacturer of plush toys, which delivers the three-week supply to the courthouse loading dock.
Using a single supplier, she explains, gives the organization a standard price and means that all of the children who are in court on a particular day receive the same bear—although they have different colored feet, enabling the children to identify which one is theirs—avoiding jealousies that arose when the bears were of different sizes and colors and had different features. The bears are changed seasonally, six times per year.
Supplies Library Cards
Some years ago, Fields embarked on another project for foster children. Learning that few of the children had library cards, primarily because foster parents didn’t want to be responsible for lost books, she helped persuade the county Department of Children and Family Services to create a “no-fault” library card program.
The card doesn’t look any different from any other child’s card, she explains, but if the foster child loses a book, the county pays for it. And she has been told that the loss rate is no higher than for children with regular cards, she says.
The one sad thing about the program, Fields adds, is that only 1,500 of the county’s 31,000 foster children participate.
“The social workers should push this,” she insists. “Nothing is more important for kids than learning to read.”
Many of the children have access to laptops or tablets, she acknowledges. “But [using] a tablet is not the same as having a book in your hand, or having a kind librarian help you with your report,” Fields comments.
Keeps Active Professionally
And through all of this, the octogenarian lawyer has continued to practice fulltime and participate in professional activities.
She was a judge pro tem in Van Nuys for many years and served on the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation in 2011, has been on the Executive Committee of the County Bar Senior Lawyers Section, and says she once carried a load of 400 dependency cases, although she has cut back.
Ernestine Fields sits in Small Claims Appeals in Van Nuys, East in the volunteer Pro Tem Judges Program, approximately, 1993.
“You have to be well organized,” she remarks. “It kind of takes over your life. But if you really like helping people, [dependency court] is the place to practice law.”
She says she generally wakes up about 5:30 a.m. and goes to sleep about 11 at night.
“The first things I do are my cases and then I do the bears,” she advises.
Comfort for Court Kids is her “magnificent obsession,” she says. “When Tim [Farrone] and I were debating whether I was going to do this or not, I was still dating. I don’t date.”
Instead, she looks for new projects, or else they find her. One time, she recalls, she ran into Nash at a shopping center and complained to him about the “dark and dank” parking structure to which the children are brought.
When the jurist said “they’re just like these parking structures” at the mall, she recites, she told him “people come here to shop, not to have their parents amputated from them.”
The solution: brightly painted murals, paid for, of course, with money raised by Fields.
No Retirement Plans
The teddy bear attorney says she will continue to put in the long hours “as long as I’m healthy, and [now] I’m in excellent health.” Judges continue to appoint her as minor’s counsel, she says, and “as long as I get appointments and the judges are happy with my work, and I like it,” she will continue do it.
She cites an interview Nash gave in which he related his advice to bench officers who’ve had a bad day. She recalls him urging them to “look at the calendar and see if they can’t find something that they did that helped people.”
For further inspiration, she keeps a photo in her office of her friend Sybil Brand. The philanthropist and advocate for incarcerated women served as chair of the county’s Institutional Inspection Commission until her death at what was believed to be the age of 104, and continued to make personal inspections of facilities until about four years before that.
For Fields, reaffirmation comes when she sees children running up to the “bear box,” she says. I see their faces and I get my energy back,” she relates. “It’s really a symbiotic relationship.”
Plaudits for Fields
I want to weigh in on one of my favorite persons ever...Ernestine Fields. As I was about to leave the court last year, I was honored with a luncheon by our CASA program in the juvenile court. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. The programs is comprised of professionally supervised citizen volunteers who are trained to help the dependency court judges on cases where the children need an extra set of eyes, ears, hands and often a heart to help them get through the difficult foster care experience. At this event, the volunteers honored me by pretending I was a youth involved in a court proceeding. I was touched and moved by the event. As part of the pretend court scenario I was given a teddy bear just as children who come to dependency court are given one. I found myself holding that bear very tightly as people were talking about me during this event. I then realized more than ever the importance and the value of the teddy bears given to our children day after day to make them feel more comfortable when they are brought to a court, always after being victimized and ultimately being removed from their homes through no fault of their own.
The Edelman Children’s Court is the most unique court of its kind in the world. It is the first, the largest and perhaps the only court that was designed and built to be a child sensitive and child friendly court facility. Besides the facility itself, that mission has become a reality more than anyone could ever possible appreciate because of the vision of the great Ernestine Fields. She understood the need for our children to be made comfortable in this setting and conceived of a way to accomplish that by simply giving them a teddy bear when they come to court to make them feel more comfortable. Her program, Comfort for Court Kids, for which she has worked tirelessly for almost 25 years to raise funds to always keep our court supplied with teddy bears, has provided comfort for children in our courts on hundreds of thousands of occasions. The program has been duplicated throughout the United States which means Ernestine’s vision has most likely aided children on millions of occasions.
This remarkable woman, though tiny in stature, has the courage and determination of a lioness along with one of the biggest and best hearts of anyone anywhere. She may be the MetNews Person of the Year for 2015, but in my book she is Person of the Year for every year. Congratulations to my dear friend Ernestine and kudos to the MetNews for one of its best choices ever.
Judge, Los Angeles Superior Court (retired)
Former Juvenile Court Presiding Judge
I first knew Ernestine Fields as the very famous “Teddy Bear Attorney” when I came to Children’s Court as a judge 13 years ago. It did not take long for me to see the value of the teddy bears that her organization, Comfort for Court Kids, provided for each abused or neglected child who came to Dependency Court. Ernestine is the organization. She dreamed and worked it into existence, has kept it funded and made sure year after year that its goals were achieved. She has worked tirelessly to make sure that each child in court would have a teddy bear, even as she has held more than fulltime employment.
Years after I had heard of her, and years after I first met her, Ernestine was an attorney in my courtroom, representing parents. She is as committed, caring and competent in her law practice as she is in running Comfort for Court Kids. Once I became Supervising Judge of Dependency, she made it a point to drop in from time to time to offer suggestions on how the courthouse might run better. She has always cared deeply about the children and families who come to this courthouse, and she is always thinking about how to make their court experiences and their lives, better.
I do not know of anyone more dedicated to helping abused and neglected children and their families, nor anyone more deserving of being named Person of the Year than Ernestine Fields.
MARGARET S. HENRY
Judge, Los Angeles Superior Court
Former Supervising Judge, Dependency
Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court
Ernestine Fields is the most open hearted woman in Dependency. She has always devoted herself to helping the children and families involved in the dependency system. In and out of court, she is courteous, kind and always willing to help anyone in need. I wholeheartedly agree with her being selected person of the year.
Principal Deputy Los Angeles County Counsel
Ernestine has been the spark from the beginning of Comfort For Court Kids that has kept the flame going all of these years. She saw the need for the children brought into the dependency court to hold on to something comforting – to hug, to play with, to point to when questioned in trials, to bring home as a remembrance of seeing their parent(s) in court, to just love. As someone who has been part of this remarkable organization from day one, I have seen first hand how much work, effort, money, joy and tears Ernestine has put into this organization – making sure the teddy bear program continues year after year. She truly deserves this recognition.
Attorney at Law
Ernestine Fields has given comfort to thousands of children who found themselves in alien surroundings in Dependency Court, most often away from their families. She worked tirelessly to make sure every child received a teddy bear as they came to court to await the outcome of their proceedings. Through her hard work and sacrifice, she left no stone unturned in her quest to find funding for the Teddy Bear Project.
Having worked for 25 years in Dependency Court, I witnessed firsthand the effect that these teddy bears had on vulnerable children involved in complex hearings; it was their only comfort in an adult world of disorder, confusion and legal wrangling.
I can think of no one who deserves this recognition more than Ernestine Fields. I am sure many children would agree with me.
Judge, Los Angeles Superior Court
Most people know about Ernestine’s teddy bear program, but they don’t know about her work to ensure that every foster child in Los Angeles County has access to a public library card. She is not just an attorney with a heart of gold, but a visionary who gets things done. She is truly a guardian to our county’s children.
D. ZEKE ZEIDLER
Judge, Los Angeles Superior Court
It is rare and refreshing to see someone go outside the normal workings of the courtroom to make the environment a better place. Ernestine Fields is the personification of such a person. I have worked with her for over 20 years in the Dependency Court system. She tirelessly strived to make Dependency Court a brighter place for the minors that were pulled into that court. She brought a smile to many of the minors that found themselves at a very low point of their lives. As a lawyer, she diligently helped many a client survive the Dependency Court ordeal, but, as the Teddy Bear Attorney, she helped thousands of minors that never knew her.
Congratulation Ernestine. No one is more deserving.
Attorney at Law
The relationship between a community and its nonprofit organizations is a vital and interdependent one, deriving its strength from the civic involvement and dedication of those who engage with such organizations, the many positive outcomes these organizations make possible, and the spirit of cooperation and respect they foster with the community. Twenty years since L. Earnestine Fields founded Comfort for Court Kids and having helped thousands and thousands of abused and neglected children cope with their experiences at Dependency Court, attorney L. Ernestine Fields continues expanding the services to comfort children today by creating hope and opportunities for them tomorrow. L. Ernestine Fields is to be commended for her dedication and has deservedly been named as one of the Persons of the Year by Metropolitan News-Enterprise.
Member of the Assembly
I have known Ernestine Fields for many years in the practice of child dependency and family law. I have also participated with her in a charitable organization which she founded, Comfort for Court Kids (CCK), that gives teddy bears to children coming into the juvenile dependency system. Several thousand teddy bears are given to these children each year. She is a truly beautiful person in her efforts regarding CCK and in her devotion to children and to the community. She is my hero.
Attorney at Law
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company