Alumni Profile

Challenging the System

Sheila Sullivan Dickinson '63, '69G, '77G, children's advocate

by Robyn Rime

Sheila Sullivan Dickinson ’63, ’69G, ’77G spends her days advocating for kids—quite literally. As a lawyer in Buffalo, her entire practice is as a court-appointed attorney for children. This means that when a custody, juvenile delinquency, or other case comes into family court and a child is entitled to legal representation, a judge appoints Dickinson.

“I love my work—totally love it,” she says. “I really enjoy challenging the systems—the Department of Social Services, the school systems, even the judicial system.”

Dickinson comes to child advocacy by way of more than 30 years as both an educator and a school administrator. “I don’t feel I was the best teacher in the world,” she demurs, “but I think I did a very good job as an administrator.”

As director of pupil personnel in the East Bloomfield (N.Y.) Central School District, Dickinson saw children age out of the system, “and everything we’d done for them could be for naught because they’d end up in the legal system. It was out of control.” One developmentally disabled young man went through the district’s program and did very well, eventually graduating at age 21. Dickinson says he was left unsupervised and got into trouble, and even now her passion for the injustice is evident. “Where is the legal system when it comes to the competency of adults? What have we done to not make it safe for him when he left us?”

Concerns such as these led Dickinson to a second career in law. She received her J.D. from SUNY Buffalo School of Law in 2000, graduating magna cum laude and receiving multiple awards. “I think I’m able to represent my clients a lot more effectively because of my educational background and my understanding of children with disabilities,” she explains.

That educational background includes three degrees from Nazareth: a B.A. in English and master’s degrees in English and education. Dickinson comes from a long line of Nazareth grads, beginning with Julia Sullivan ’29 and including generations of aunts and cousins. “We’re proud of our connection to Nazareth, but not just because of the tradition of Sullivan enrollment,” she says. “We are proud because Nazareth has continued to represent those values that are important to us.”

Dickinson continues to honor those values in her commitment to civic engagement. She serves as a pro bono representative of parents in public school special education and discipline issues. In addition to serving as a member of the Nazareth alumni board for several years, she has been a member of (and served on the boards of directors for) both Gay and Lesbian Youth Services and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in Buffalo. The former organization has established an award in Dickinson’s honor because, she says, she “worked hard to get them involved with working with troubled youth. A lot of gay and lesbian youth are either bullied at school or rejected by their parents. We need to educate the legal system about these kids.”

Dickinson, who received Nazareth’s Outstanding Alumni Award in 2002, used her acceptance speech to honor her professors and classmates, those who gave her “a road map that led to self-fulfillment, integrity, commitment, and service. … If you tell me that I have accomplished some good things,” she concluded, “it is in large part because of the influence and support of the strong women of Nazareth.”

Robyn Rime is the editor of Connections.

Sheila Sullivan Dickinson

Sheila Sullivan Dickinson '63, '69G, '77G a lawyer in private practice in Buffalo, on campus for her 50th Reunion in June 2013.