ANN BALMELLI O’CONNOR, Margaret Winchester Child Welfare Advocacy Award. The Margaret Winchester Child Welfare Advocacy Award honors a staff member or a private attorney who, through his or her zealous advocacy and extraordinary commitment to children and parents in care and protection and other Massachusetts child welfare cases, is a model for other advocates seeking to protect the rights of children and parents.
Ann O’Connor started her career in 1991 as a DSS trial lawyer. She quickly transitioned to appellate work in the DSS General Counsel’s Office, where she handled dozens of important appeals. In 2006, Ann left DSS and joined the CAFL appellate panel; a few years later, she became an appellate mentor. In 2010, she won Adoption of Azziza, the first decision in Massachusetts holding that a parent in a termination case deserved a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
Ann became the first Attorney-in-Charge of the CAFL Appellate Unit in January 2012, where she and her staff of four appellate attorneys, an AA, and occasional student interns have had many successes. In 2017, she won Care and Protection of Walt, a watershed SJC decision holding (a) that judges must make “reasonable efforts” determinations at 72-hour hearings, and (b) when DCF fails to make reasonable efforts to prevent removal, courts have equitable authority to order DCF to provide visits and services. Ann was relentless in Walt and never gave up despite aggressive opposition by DCF and the Juvenile Court.
Ann and her staff also work closely with the CAFL trial offices to help attorneys set up important issues for final and interlocutory appeal. Ann’s office has coupled with the CAFL trial offices to file more than 65 single justice petitions, many of which led to remands and better results at the trial level.
Ann O’Connor deserves recognition not just for her great appellate skills and successes, but for her demand for fairness and her unflagging zealous advocacy for families in the child welfare system. This award is richly deserved.