Path to bench forged early on for longtime child welfare advocate.

 
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Byline: Barry Bridges

The youngest person to have taken and passed the Rhode Island bar exam, Family Court Judge Laureen A. D'Ambra was clear almost from day 1 where her life was headed.

"I have always known I wanted to be a lawyer and was focused on it from the beginning," she says.

A fortuitous school field trip perhaps sealed the deal.

"We had a very progressive sixth-grade teacher at Bay View who took 20 or 30 of us to visit the Superior Court building, the Licht complex," she recalls. "I had never been in a courtroom or a courthouse, and I can still remember it. It was a moment for me."

Later, Sister Catherine introduced her young charges to the State House, which further cemented D'Ambra's early love of politics and the law.

True to her calling and wasting no time, D'Ambra earned both her undergraduate and law degrees in a span of five years, becoming a lawyer in 1980 at the age of 23. That same year she launched her career as a trial attorney at the Department of Children, Youth and Families, later served as the department's appellate counsel, and was named Rhode Island's child advocate in 1989. She ascended to the Family Court bench in 2004.

"I think I always had the goal of one day becoming a judge and have loved every single day of being on the bench, serving as the state's child advocate, and working as an attorney," she says.

But if she had to choose, D'Ambra says the most exciting moment of her career to date would be her involvement in the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.

"At the time, Rhode Island was one of few states allowing for termination of parental rights based on cruel and abusive treatment of a child. As the child advocate, I testified in Congress before the House Ways and Means Committee about the way the statute worked in Rhode Island. Similar language was used in the federal law, and Sen. [John H.] Chafee was instrumental in getting it passed."

D'Ambra recently sat down in her Newport chambers with Lawyers Weekly to share memorable moments from her work on behalf of children and families, as well as some of the challenges she sees in her job as a member of the Family Court bench.

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Q.How have your years at DCYF and as the child advocate assisted your work as a Family Court judge?

A. It's probably difficult to be a judge if you haven't been involved in a trial from the other side of the bench. I've always loved being in the courtroom and trying cases, and of course being a judge gives me a wholly...

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