Civita Brown USE

Civita Brown, left, poses with fellow Archives Management Committee members Jeriann Wilson, MEd, CCLS, Joan Turner, PhD, CCLS, and Lois Pearson, MEd, CCLS.

Civita Brown: DSA Recipient and Innovator in All Things Child Life

ACLP Bulletin | Spring 2020 | VOL. 38 NO. 2

Jeriann M. Wilson, MEd, CCLS
Retired, Towson, MD
Putting Civita A. Brown, MSEd, CCLS, into a child life mold is not an easy task when considering the many accomplishments that led her to receive this year’s Distinguished Service Award, to be presented at the 2020 Child Life Annual Conference in May. Serving in a multitude of roles, she has worked as a child life specialist, inaugurated a child life program in a local hospital, taught college level courses, coordinated child life internships, initiated a unique school-based child life program, and she oversaw the creation of the Child Life Archives housed at Utica College. This article will weave together the many facets of the legacy of her career as an innovator, historian, and mentor within the child life profession.

Civita is a long-time member of both of our professional associations—the now defunct Association for the Care of Children’s Health (ACCH) and theAssociation of Child Life Professionals (ALCP), formerly known as the Child Life Council (CLC). Her involvement with ACCH began over 40 years ago when she served twice as president of her local chapter. With CLC and then ACLP, her involvement dates from 1988 with membership on the Academic and Internship Committees. Most notably, Civita served from 2001 to 2016 as the co-chair of the Child Life History Committee, which became the Archives Management Group. In addition to managing the group, she and co-chair Lois Pearson, MS, CCLS, also co-produced three videos of our organizational history which were featured at five-year anniversary conference celebrations. Her participation locally and nationally was indicative of her commitment to furthering the outreach and goals of our professional body.

Civita’s education prepared her for the variety of experiences she would encounter during her career. Her bachelor’s degree was in social studies with additional graduate work in education, secondary education, and special education in New York and California. In 1977, when she returned to New York from California, she did not have a teaching credential for New York State so chose to take graduate classes at Utica College. Her instructor was Gene Stanford, PhD, who had just founded Utica’s psychology-child life program. It was Gene who introduced Civita to the child life field and loaned her Emma Plank’s book, Working with Children in Hospitals. She was hooked! Civita enrolled as the inaugural student in the psychology-child life program. Gene was her supervisor for three internships—a social studies student teaching experience and two child life internships, the last at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica, where she was invited to create a child life program.

Civita has shared her knowledge and experience producing numerous presentations and articles on topics such as innovations in child life curriculum, grief and loss, child life services in the school setting, the history of play, tracing the paths of the pioneers [in child life], a legacy for our future, and the history of child life. One could see the seeds of an interest in history and archives developing. Civita teamed with Joan Turner, PhD, CCLS, to co-edit two books in the “Pips” series: The Pips of Child Life: Early Years of Play Programs in Hospitals and The Pips of Child Life: The Middle Years of Play Programs in Hospitals. Civita described her work in classrooms in the chapter “The School Setting” in the book Child Life Beyond the Hospital, edited by Melissa Hicks, MS, CCLS, LPC, RPT. In addition, Civita has been the recipient of several honors: recognition as an Outstanding Young Woman of America in 1978, and acceptance into the Alpha Eta Society, the national honor society for allied health professions, in 2008.
In addition to Gene overseeing Civita as she began the new child life program, Richard (Dick) Thompson, PhD, CCLS, served as her mentor. Of those early days, Dick says, “I fondly recall our early meetings and work together in Utica!” Civita worked for 4 years at St. Elizabeth’s before leaving to start a family. According to Civita, a lovely side story is that Gene was the matchmaker who introduced Civita to her husband, Thom Brown, PhD, a psychology faculty member.

In 1987, with daughters Amy and Megan in elementary school, Civita was hired by Utica College as the director of medical education for the clinical medical network, a grant-funded program that recruited medical students for programs in rural medicine to aid an underserved population. Six years later, she was hired as an adjunct professor in the psychology-child life program—the program in which she had been a student 16 years previously. 

After many years of student mentorship, Civita was appointed coordinator of internships. Completion of her master’s degree in inclusive education in 2003 concluded her formal degree-earning education. One of her students, Rechelle D. Porter, LSW, CCLS, (now director of child life services at New York-Presbyterian) said of Civita, “Her passion for the field of child life made me immediately want to become a specialist.
She encouraged her students to challenge themselves when selecting a placement.” Civita retired from her teaching responsibilities in 2017. John H. Johnsen, PhD, former provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, commented, “Civita has absolutely been one of the pillars of the Utica College program. Her contributions to the program and its students have been consistent, uplifting, and prescient." 

The Child Life Archives were born out of necessity, and Civita was the midwife who initiated and saw the process through. When she and Lois Pearson took over the History Committee, Civita realized that a controlled environment was needed for the preservation of the CLC papers and newsletters which had been stored in members’ basements for some years. She thought that Utica College’s Frank E. Gannett Memorial Library was a possible location and asked the library director if space was available for the collection. When he affirmed there was space, the college dean granted permission for the library to provide a cabinet to hold the papers and offered to permanently house the Archives.

Over the next two years, Civita worked with the CLC Board and Utica College to reach an agreement, which was finalized in 2003. Civita reports that the Archives collection now has quadrupled in size with its collection of personal papers, articles, hospital related toys, videotaped interviews with ALCP leaders, out-of-print books, as well as histories of academic and clinical programs. It continues to be used by child life students and professionals around the country. Utica College has embraced having the Archives there, as echoed by Patrice Hallock, PhD, dean of health professions and education, who wrote “It means so much to Utica College to hold the Archives for the Association of Child Life Professionals because child life has played an important role at Utica College as well as for the profession as a whole.” The library’s coordinator of technical services, Herbert LaGoy Jr., MA, MLIS, Civita’s partner in the day-to-day management of the Archives for ten years, wrote, “It is a delight to work with Civita. Her dedication and commitment to the child life profession is clearly reflected in the ongoing interest she has expressed in preserving the profession’s historical record.”

Another innovative aspect of Civita’s work featured in the aforementioned Child Life Beyond the Hospital
was the outreach to the community in 2003 with the first known program in the country to provide comprehensive child life services in a school. The program that she developed at Sauquoit Elementary School continues today. One of her students at that time was Paul Dischiavo, LCSW-R, Sauquoit’s current school social worker, who says “Civita quickly became part of the school community. She worked one on one with a number of our students. I still have parents tell me how her work impacted them.”

With an aim to continue these kinds of services on a broader scale, Civita and Susan Cooper, CCLS, formed a consulting company in 2009 to provide child life services in multiple school settings. They received a 6-year grant to create a Safe Schools project on mental health issues in five school districts. Program director Jane Goodwin remarks that this “was exactly what she had hoped for—a program that addresses life changes and loss for school-aged students by incorporating play into a support system.” Susan further described that they “provided training and in-services for staff and parents, grief groups, and individual services to children scheduled for dental and hospital visits.” They also offered a teddy bear clinic, a CPR program, and a Healthy Choices Boot Camp which centered on healthy lifestyle choices.

Civita’s work has impacted thousands of children, directly and indirectly, but the most impressive story is the one told by her daughter, Amy E. Caruso Brown, MD, MSc, MSCS, a professor of pediatrics. She relates a memory from her childhood when their father was admitted to the hospital’s critical care unit with septic shock. In the visitor area, Civita sat with her two young daughters and drew pictures of the equipment, the tubes, and the wires they could expect to see in his room and described why his toes would be black. Amy wrote that, “She made the experience so profoundly ordinary that, 30 years later, I still associate the sights, sounds and smells of intensive care with safety, warmth, and care.” And how does Civita feel about her career and the many roles she has played? She mused, “Sometimes I think I was just at the right place at the right time and everything came together. Of course, the support of family and so many amazing people helped.”

Distinguished Service Award

Since 1988, the child life profession’s outstanding leaders and pioneers have been honored with ACLP’s most prestigious award, the Distinguished Service Award. This award recognizes exceptional ACLP members, not only for their outstanding contributions to the field of child life, but also for their professional experience, leadership, integrity, and vision. All ACLP members are encouraged to consider nominating a deserving colleague, peer, or mentor. All nomination materials and guidelines are available on the ACLP website. The nomination and review process takes place in late summer/early fall each year. Questions about DSA criteria or the nomination process can be emailed to To learn more about the lives, careers, and contributions to child life made by previous recipients of the Distinguished Service Award, please visit the ACLP website.