Every few years, AFCC California presents a special award to a member of our community or organization who has provided outstanding services to children throughout the years. This award is named after Joseph Drown, a businessman who became interested in the work of the AFCC in the early 1980’s, after meeting Jeanne Ames, the original and longtime historian of AFCC-CA. Ms. Ames shared with Mr. Drown the mission, vision and values of the AFCC, and he regretted that AFCC had not been there to provide insight about his children’s experience of his own divorce years prior. Mr. Drown later donated generously to the AFCC to support its educational programs.
Prior recipients of the Drown Award include The Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, Commissioner Marjorie Slabach, Jeanne T. Ames, Joan Kelly, the Honorable Justice Donald B. King, and Judith Wallerstein. (Please see full details on the AFCC-CA website.)
The California Chapter of AFCC is honored to present the 2020 Drown Award to attorney Diane Wasznicky. Throughout her family law career, Diane has given her volunteer work, that is focused on children and improving the law, equal importance with her general practice. When I spoke with her recently about this award, Diane explained her unique background that led her to be so dedicated to children in family law, which she spoke about when she accepted her award at the recent annual conference.
Diane took a unique path to becoming a family law attorney. In the 1960’s, Diane lived in Massachusetts and attended high school. At age 17, Diane left high school, married, and had her first child. Less than 18 months later she had a second child, and then left her husband. The attorney she met with convinced her that as the children’s mother, she would have custody of the children, and did not need to obtain any temporary court orders.
A few months later Diane’s husband came to her apartment to visit the kids. She had been sunbathing in the back yard. After Diane opened the door and turned to walk down the hallway, her husband struck her from behind, shoving her into the next room. He then held a knife to her throat, telling her to “enjoy the sun because this was the last time she would see it.” Fortunately Diane’s girlfriend called at that moment, and Diane’s husband let her answer the phone because if she did not her friend would have become alarmed. Even though Diane said everything was fine, her friend could tell from her voice and the double-speak they used that something was wrong. She called the police. When the police arrived, they could easily see a bright red welt of his handprint on Diane’s back where her husband had struck her. He was not arrested, but told to leave. A few weeks later he and his male cousin came back to Diane’s home and took both children (with only the babysitter there) who were at the time just two years old and three months old.
For the next several weeks Diane and her parents drove all over the area, following leads to try to find the children. Her husband then left the state, leaving Diane’s baby son but taking her two-year-old daughter. He remained missing for several months before he was finally located and arrested, but Diane’s daughter was not with him, and remained missing as the father refused to say where she was. At the initial court hearing on the prior domestic violence incident, Diane was not allowed to be in the courtroom, and waited in the hall. She later learned that when the judge took the bench, he ordered that her daughter must be immediately returned, or Diane’s husband was “going up the river.” This was the courtroom of a small, one-judge town who had presided for 40 years. Diane later learned that her mother had gone to meet the judge before the hearing, and told him the whole story. Diane got her daughter back. She then later had a third child and her marriage was formally ended after four eventful years!
Diane was then a 20-year-old, single mother of three children, without a high school diploma. In the late 1960s, few resources were available, such as childcare. Then, Diane’s youngest child began to attend a Head Start program that required parents to be involved in the classroom. Diane was encouraged by the teachers to be involved, and then to get her GED. At that time, Diane planned to be a social worker, a traditionally female area, because she was unimpressed with those she had to deal with as a welfare mom. She wanted to work with the welfare department so someone would be doing the job who knew what the women in the system were going through.
After earning her GED, Diane attended a local community college and then transferred to the University of Massachusetts. A key moment for Diane’s future occurred when her college advisor, who did not think she should become a social worker and tried to convince her to teach sociology, asked – “If you could do anything, what would you do?” Diane thought this over and said: “I’d probably try and go into the law because the tests I’ve taken say this is my strength, and I find it interesting.” The advisor then asked, “So why are you not taking the LSAT?” Diane’s response was: “They don’t let people like me in law school, I am thirty-three, on welfare and have three children!” The advisor made Diane promise to sign up for the LSAT, and she took it, and aced it.
Diane ultimately was enrolled in law school at UC Davis. Moving to California was a hard transition for many reasons including the family’s lack of financial means and even due to their New England accents.
When Diane entered law school, she knew immediately that she wanted to practice in the area of family law. This field presented the perfect combination of law, psychology, and social work. Among her professors at King Hall were Carol Bruch and Brigette Bodenheimer, both very well known in the family law area at the time.
Diane’s life remained busy and stressful with three adolescent kids and this led her to actually fall asleep during the bar exam and she did not pass. She did not have the $130 to retake the exam, so Professor Bodenheimer loaned her the funds, and Diane passed the second time.
All these experiences led Diane to be entirely committed to helping families and children in her work as a family law attorney and paying it all forward to show her gratitude for all those who listened, cared and tried to help.
Diane became involved with the AFCC in 2006. At the time she was very involved with the State Bar and the Sacramento Bar Association. She received a call from the then-President of AFCC-CA Jerilyn Borack about joining the board, when Leslie Shear, who was leaving the board, recommended her. Diane joined and soon was chairing the annual conference in San Francisco. She has since then either chaired or co-chaired four further annual conferences. Diane later used her deep knowledge of legislation to create the AFCC-CA legislative committee, and was then President of the association in 2010-2012.
Has Diane’s career choice been rewarding? She reports that she still loves what she does. She has been able to stick with high-conflict custody cases for so long because she focuses on where she can make a difference, and on the successes. She is heavily involved with the cases, working closely with her clients, and sometimes sharing her own history to help parents realize that they can move past their current circumstances and get to a better place. What that happens, that is her reward.
Diane finds her minor’s counsel cases most rewarding. She says that children are “the best clients” and helping them is all the reward she needs. Minor’s counsel representation can last many years, with Diane having had one client from age 4 through 18 (and from whom she later received high school graduation and wedding announcements). Diane has not only helped children with neglectful or abusive parents – she has also helped parents to grow, change, and better meet their children’s needs, which is always the goal.
Diane finds that her involvement in the organizations such as AFCC has been pivotal to her career. This work helps her to feel that she is not simply “marking time” but changing the system for the better. She is continually learning. She has made lifelong friends with a common interest of improving the legal system. Her work with AFCC and other family law organizations feeds her ability to maintain her stressful law practice.
The AFCC-CA expresses its deep gratitude for all of Diane Wasznicky’s important contributions, support, and friendship.