Eva Bunnell, IDP '06
- A veteran child advocate takes on
the challenge of college
By Michael Bradley '98
Eva Bunnell grew up in a large family with five siblings. As a child, she says that she suffered “every type of abuse you can imagine . . . and neglect.” She and her siblings were taken out of school early so they could work. College was never mentioned. “Coming out of that environment, you have no idea that you have something in you that should be explored,” she says. Hoping, in part, to escape the hardships of home, Bunnell was married at the age of 21. She later gave birth to her first child, daughter Jacinta, who was born severely disabled. But for Bunnell, who describes herself before that point as “extremely shy,” this marked the beginning of an awakening within herself—a transformation that would take her all the way to the United States Congress as a child advocate, fighting for the welfare of children throughout the nation.
In need of access to specialized pediatric care, Bunnell found herself up against a system that did not support the level of services her daughter needed. Bunnell’s family was dropped by their private insurer because the company did not want to cover her daughter’s very expensive needs. Public insurance programs, Bunnell says, had “extremely strict guidelines for eligibility.”
If she had given her daughter up for adoption in Connecticut—
something she says she never would have done—the foster parents “would have received everything they needed” to care for the child. “But, as her natural parent, I had very few options available.”
“Jacinta really gave me my voice,” says Bunnell. “I had to speak up for her or else she wasn’t going to get what she needed to live. I absolutely would not allow my child to suffer because the system didn’t work right.”
At her church, Bunnell met an ally in a “kind man who would always reach out to Jacinta.” Initially unknown to Bunnell, this “kind man” turned out to be United States Senator Christopher Dodd. “He would always take time for my daughter,” Bunnell says. “He helped her become more a part of our community.”
As Bunnell and her family became closer with Dodd, he learned of their hardships. Among these was the intolerance her husband faced from his employer at that time, who would not accommodate the Bunnell’s need to care for their daughter. Dodd called on Bunnell to testify before Congress, along with the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in support of the Family and Medical Leave Act. That landmark bill, designed to grant family and temporary medical leave under certain circumstances, was passed into law in 1993.
Since her appearance before Congress, Bunnell has also fought for legislation in Connecticut that benefits children with special needs; coordinated a health-financing project at the Newington Children’s Hospital; and, from 1991 to 1999, directed a government relations program at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. She left the hospital in 1999 to serve on the state’s Medicaid council, where she was asked to chair the behavioral health subcommittee. Bunnell also worked on HUSKY Plus, a supplement to HUSKY B, the state-run Connecticut Children’s Health Insurance Plan. The supplement’s comprehensive benefit package contributed to the plan’s having been rated by the Children’s Defense Fund as one of the country’s top four state children’s health insurance programs.
Today, Bunnell serves on the board of directors of a task force called “National Call to Action: A Movement to End Child Abuse and Neglect.” She also serves on that group’s “Authentic Voices Executive Committee.” Last fall, she was instrumental in organizing a community forum on child abuse held at the Mohegan Sun Convention Center in Uncasville, Connecticut.
“I think, because of my background, there’s always this sense of injustice that you have to fix things that aren’t right for kids,” Bunnell says. “That’s always driven me.”
The most important question: “What do you think?”
Although she lacked a college education, Bunnell managed to become a respected child advocate who had testified before the state and national legislatures, guest lectured at Yale Law School, and been personally praised for her work by President Bill Clinton. Still, she felt she was missing something.
Bunnell was attracted to Trinity’s Individualized Degree Program by the College’s outreach to nontraditional students and the program’s compatibility with her busy life. Trinity’s enthusiastic faculty and spirited classroom discussions have changed her perception of the college classroom, she says.
“Here, people ask the most important question you can ask anybody, which is ‘what do you think?’ You get to ask that question and that question gets asked of you. To me, that’s like gold.”
“Like so many IDP students, she was never on track to go to college,” says Liz Burns, assistant director of special academic programs. “There was never any support or encouragement for her when she was the age of traditional college students. Eva discovered in herself a real desire for knowledge—a need to learn and understand, and found the strength and confidence to take on college as an adult.”
Bunnell says she will likely complete a thesis or final project on a topic related to her public policy interests. “I would love to see kids become more important in this world from a policy point of view. If you look at what we spend on children in this country, on their health, and on child abuse prevention, it’s just miniscule. Child abuse is 10 times the rate of cancer. We need to start creating a culture in America that appreciates and cherishes its children and protects their experience as children.”
Bunnell says that since 1985, there has been a trend toward increased child abuse in the United States, highlighted by a greater-than-100-percent increase in child sexual abuse. “We talk about statistics, but we forget that there are real people behind those numbers,” she says. “These statistics walk and talk . . . if they make it through.”
With her sights set on ambitious goals, such as the creation of a monument in Washington to call attention to children’s issues, it is not likely Bunnell will slow her advocacy efforts anytime soon.
“It’s just in my blood until the day I die,” she says. “I want to see kids better-protected.”
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