Rochester attorney Lisa Morris is set to receive The Hon. Michael F. Dillon Attorneys for Children Award on June 22.
Appellate Division, Fourth Department Presiding Justice Henry J. Scudder will present the award to Morris and five other attorneys from Central and Western New York
The Dillon award, which “signifies vigorous advocacy on behalf of children,” was once known as The Dillon Law Guardian Award. The change in terms might seem insignificant to laypeople, but for the legal cognoscenti, it holds some import.
The term “law guardian” can be confused with “guardian ad litem,” a court appointee who does not necessarily have to be an attorney and who can act as a general custodian. Tracy Hamilton, director of Office of Attorneys for Children, Appellate Division, Fourth Department, said the role of “attorneys for children” is better defined as an advocate in court.
As it states on her office’s website, the definition of the attorney for the child “has engendered a great deal of confusion” and that clearly it is different from that of a guardian ad litem, “appointed as an arm of the court to protect the best interests of a person under a legal disability. In contrast, the role of the attorney for the child is to serve as a child’s lawyer.”
The attorney for the child is responsible for representing and advocating the child’s wishes and interests in the proceeding or action.
To be an attorney for the child, “is to act in the child’s best interest, counseling them and advocating for them,” Hamilton said in a phone interview on Tuesday, “not [for] what the attorney thinks is their best interest.”
That should be the chief judge’s purview, Hamilton said, but there are exceptions, albeit narrow ones.
“An obvious example would be a 3-year-old,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton referenced Rule 7.2 of the Chief Judge, which among other things changed the term “law guardian” to “attorney for the child.”
Gov. David A. Paterson in April signed a bill that struck the term “law guardian,” replacing it with “attorney for the child” or “counsel for the child” in New York statutes, Hamilton wrote in an e-mail.
“The term law guardian was ambiguous and could be interpreted to mean that an attorney for children’s role was in the nature of a guardian ad litem,” she wrote. “The term ‘attorney for the child’ makes it clear that an attorney for the child is an advocate.”
Hamilton said Morris was nominated by the Monroe County Family Court Judge Joseph G. Nesser — a 1999 recipient of the Dillon award and an attorney for children at that time.
She said the Attorneys for Children Committee chose Morris based on her “excellence in advocating for children and factors such as extraordinary efforts performed on complex cases; consistency and outstanding performance; courtroom demeanor; effectiveness in aid to the court; contributions to the panel; and willingness and availability to serve.”
Both Morris and Syracuse attorney Marc Waldauer, one of the other honorees, agreed the new term is better descriptive of their work. Waldauer said it could be confusing because “we’re appointed to do advocacy for the children and not for the better good.”
Morris began practicing in 1986 and started work as a child advocate a year later. She finds the work rewarding and said she is thrilled to receive the award.
“It’s a well-run program and there are a lot of super lawyers involved with it,” Morris said. “There’s a certain dedication that is required.”
“I absolutely love working with kids,” she said, “and it’s critical that they have a voice in the system and to what happens to them at this important point in their lives.”
Waldauer and Morris both said the toughest cases they handle are those involving abuse and neglect. Waldauer, who is 61, has practiced for 36 years and worked many difficult cases involving children. He said he’s seen “every side of every case.”
The award, he said, is “sweet,” and it is great to be recognized by his peers, but it’s the work itself that’s rewarding, otherwise he would not have done it for so long.
“This is just the cherry on top,” he said. “But it’s nice to have some news clippings for the family.”
Waldauer said there was a time when, as a younger attorney, he was cast in the role of parent by his young clients, which involved a lot of argument and angst.
“Now I have gray hair and I’m the grandfather,” he said. “Now they listen to me.”
Morris said she did not know Dillon personally, but noted his reputation as an extremely fair jurist who treated everyone who entered his court with the same level of respect. Dillon has been noted for being instrumental in improving legal representation for children in the Fourth Department and for initiating mandatory training for attorneys for children statewide.
Along with Morris and Waldauer, this year’s recipients are Deetza G. Benno, Steuben County; Diane Martin-Grande, Oneida County; and Teresa M. Lorenzo and James A. Kruezer, Erie County.
“We do this every day and when people come into court, hopefully once or twice in their lifetime for a divorce or custody hearing, it’s important that we treat them as individuals,” Morris said. “That’s hard to do on a daily basis.”