Tracie Molinaro gives children a voice in court, even when they cannot be present.
And, sometimes, after they have died.
Molinaro, of St. Onge & Brouillard in Woodstock, handles a wide range of pro bono cases, including work as a guardian ad litem representing children who have been victims of sex abuse in criminal cases.
But the toughest cases are those when she is called on to speak for children who have died at the hands of their parents. “You are their voice. They can’t be there and they deserve to be heard in the process,” Molinaro said. “They should have someone advocating for them.”
For her willingness to handle many cases on a pro bono and “low bono” basis, Molinaro was one of 13 attorneys nominated by judges from across the state. They will be recognized at the Law Tribune’s Honors Night ceremony on June 19.
“I think a lot of lawyers do a lot of pro bono work, but they aren’t really recognized for it. I think it’s under-acknowledged,” said Molinaro, who graduated from Western New England College School of Law in 1994.
Windham Judicial District Administrative Judge Michael Riley suggested that Molinaro is being too humble. He described her as “one of the few lawyers I couldn’t say enough good things about. … She pretty much does more [pro bono work] than anyone out here.”
In one case, Molinaro represented a toddler who had been smothered to death by the mother. There was an issue of whether the mother was competent to stand trial. Before it was determined that she was, Molinaro offered input as to whether the woman ought to be permitted to be around other children.
“You want to articulate that on behalf of the victim,” Molinaro said. “[You want to] make sure the child’s voice is heard somehow, to make sure the child’s voice is not lost in the process.”
After law school, Molinaro worked for the state as an assistant clerk for five years before she began working at her current firm, where her practice includes family law, probate work and real estate cases.
Her first pro bono work was in probate court. She was then asked to get involved as a child advocate in criminal cases. “It’s been a learning process,” Molinaro said.
In those cases where she represents sexually abused children, she keeps the victim and the victim’s family involved in the process as much as possible. That can be tricky, however, when the defendant is a family member. “You have to decide whether the kid testifies,” she said, describing one of her responsibilities. “You participate in negotiations if there is a plea deal.”
She said the child victim always has a right to be heard at a sentencing. Sometimes they aren’t able to speak for themselves. Sometimes they’re simply not comfortable in a courtroom situation. That’s where Molinaro comes in. “Sometimes they want the message to be heard, but they don’t want to be the one to deliver it,” Molinaro said.
The amount of money paid to guardians ad litem in divorce and custody cases became a big issue during the last legislative session. But both Molinaro and Riley said while fees may be high in places like Fairfield County, it’s a nonissue in the sparsely populated northeast corner of the state. Most GAL assignments are handled by lawyers for little or no charge.
When Molinaro handles those types of cases, she said one of her goals is trying to avoid a trial. “I think people are mostly good people, [but] they are at their worst in a custody case,” Molinaro said. “If we can help them get to the end with an agreement before trial, that’s the goal. You can’t always do that.”
Oftentimes, she said, the children are easier to deal with than the divorcing parents. “The kids are great. Often it’s the parents that need to be educated on the process,” she said. “I also think parents in a divorce or custody case think the court system is going to fix all their problems. … They’re looking for social services, but we don’t do that. We have to educate people about what’s realistic.”
Riley, the administrative judge, said in addition to all her courtroom work, Molinaro also puts on the judicial district’s annual Law Day ceremony. “She’s an excellent lawyer, a hard worker,” Riley said. “There should be more lawyers like her. She does a great job for her clients.”•