As a member of the Law Guardian Panel in Nassau County Family and Supreme Court since 1996, attorney Jill Stone has represented thousands of children. She’s seen firsthand the effect divorce and custody proceedings have on a child and she tries to make the situation as easy as possible by following the words of wisdom her father gave her when she was starting out. Stone spoke with Pulse on when a child needs a lawyer and how to make custody battles easier.
Long Island Pulse: What are some common mistakes parents make in custody disputes?
Jill Stone: Parents believe that the children, especially ones of young age, don’t hear things and don’t understand what is happening. Lots of times I come in and a child will say ‘oh you’re my lawyer cause my parents hate each other.’ Parents don’t realize the detrimental effects of their behavior.
Pulse: What are some of those effects?
Stone: Some children become very depressed. I’ve had clients that cut themselves. I’ve had clients that lock themselves in a room and refuse to talk to either parent. It manifests in many ways.
Pulse: How does your role help to mitigate those effects?
Stone: I tell my clients immediately that it’s no longer their problem. It’s mine. Instead of eavesdropping they can call me and I’ll get them accurate information. I try to take them out of the mix and I become their voice. I tell the parents that if they want to talk about the case with each other it should be between 9am and 3pm when the children are out of the house. I give them the children’s bill of rights under the law and let them know what the children are entitled to under the law. I try to explain that the children should be free from being in the middle and I ask the court for support in protecting the children and ask the court to admonish the parties.
Pulse: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Stone: My father was one of the top criminal defense attorneys in Queens County and I was brought up with the taste of practicing law and helping people. I worked with him from high school and after college I wasn’t sure what type of practice I wanted to go into. I worked in the District Attorney’s office as a paralegal at the beginning. When I decided I was going to law school I applied and was accepted to the City University of New York Law School at Queens College and was in the inaugural class. CUNY Law School is a law school in the service of human needs and after graduation I started practicing with my dad and my brother.
Pulse: What inspired you to focus on children?
Stone: My father’s specialty was criminal law. When I started to practice with him, there was a very bad case and the defendant also had a case in family court as well as supreme court. My father basically said OK you’re an expert in family court, gave me this file and I started to practice. As I got more into matrimonial law I had a case where the attorney for the child was assigned and her position was so detrimental to the little girl at issue, that I inquired into what it took to become an attorney for children.
Pulse: Why would a child need a lawyer?
Stone: In different parts of family law, including juvenile delinquency cases, neglect proceedings and especially in custody cases, parents believe what they’re advocating for their children and doing is what is in their best interest. However, the parents do not realize that their judgment is clouded because they are so involved emotionally in their own case that an independent attorney is needed to represent the child.
Pulse: What qualifies a person as a child’s lawyer?
Stone: It’s different in each county, but in Nassau County you have to be admitted to the bar for a minimum of five years and have a mentor who the lawyer will shadow for a period of time. There are many continuing legal education courses that must be taken by the attorney.
Pulse: What does a child’s lawyer do?
Stone: Attorneys for children must set forth the wishes of the child. The judge determines the best interest in terms of living arrangements and other issues concerning the child. As an attorney for children, I don’t have to agree with their wishes but I must present them to the court. Attorneys for children counsel the child on what the outcomes can be regarding custody issues and financial aspects when it relates directly to their behavior.
Pulse: Does the age of the child matter?
Stone: Yes, age matters. Attorneys for children are charged with representing the wishes of the child. If the child is young the attorney for the child must do their own investigation. If the child is five or older, we must represent the child’s wishes to the court and we may only substitute judgement if there is evidence that the child is not of sound mind. An example is in the case of an infant or if I feel the child’s judgment is pressured by outside forces I make sure to speak to the child’s pediatrician, caretaker or school so I receive the proper information to advise the court.
Pulse: What was the best piece of advice you got when starting out?
Stone: It comes from my father and I’ve tried to emulate it. The only thing you have is your integrity. Never compromise your integrity for anything or anybody and you’ll have the respect of whomever you’re dealing with. Your goal should be that if you say something in court or to your adversary that they won’t have to question it, because it came from you.