Some kids 'you can't let go'

Juvenile referee encourages those leaving system to return with success stories

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Julia B. Owdziej works with troubled kids in her job as an attorney referee/deputy probate register at the Washtenaw County Juvenile and Probate Court.

Because the job can be heart wrenching, she learned long ago to leave it behind at the end of the day.

But there was something about a boy named Kenny who entered the juvenile system 12 years ago that made detachment difficult.

Kenny was the 10-year-old son of a woman charged with abuse and neglect. He didn't have much of a chance from the get-go, despite the best efforts of Owdziej (pronounced "OWD-zi") and others at Juvenile Court.

On his 11th birthday--a day spent at a residential facility for troubled children--Kenny waited for his mother to visit. She had promised she would come. Social workers had arranged their schedules to make it happen. Kenny was wearing a new shirt for the occasion.

His mother never showed.

"I don't know how as a child you recover from not being the most important thing to a parent," said Owdziej.

Once at a hearing, Kenny gave Owdziej a poem he had written while he was confined at Maxey Boys Training School. It was titled, "Who Am I" and included the words:

I am a young man

Who is desperate to change

But yet I am still a young man

Who is suffering in pain

Who am I

I am a young man

Who was lost at an early age

Just before he turned 18 four years ago, Kenny was shot to death following a group bar fight that spilled into the parking lot. The shooter was aiming for someone else in the car.

His companions fled, leaving him to die alone in the back seat of a Dodge Neon.

When a Legal News reporter showed up at Owdziej's office on the third floor of the courthouse recently, she noted that it would have been Kenny's 22nd birthday.

He died alone, much as he had lived, said Owdziej.

The last thing his probation officer, Bill Malcolm, and the juvenile court employees did for Kenny was to donate money to bury him.

"For as many children as we help, it is the Kennys that keep us awake at night," Owdziej said.

Though her job can be draining at times, Owdziej finds it immensely rewarding. As a high school student in Royal Oak, she had read Jack Abbott's book of letters from prison titled, "In the Belly of the Beast" and liked the idea of changing people's lives for the better.

After earning a degree in criminal justice at Michigan State University, Owdziej went on to Detroit College of Law.

It didn't take her long to realize she wanted to stand up for victims rather than defendants. After graduation, she spent a year in Wayne County representing the Department of Human Services in cases involving abuse and neglect.

"It was quite a baptism by fire," she said.

In fact, when writing her resume later, she actually had to reduce the number of trials she was involved in because she knew nobody would believe the actual number in just one year.

In 1991, she became a Washtenaw County assistant prosecutor, which she believes is the best experience a young lawyer could have.

"I loved going to trial," she said. "It was satisfying to be in the courtroom and to get a conviction. But the losses stick with you. You remember the losses more than the wins."

She treasures those years, even if she doesn't miss the Sunday night "trial stomach."

After eight years as a prosecutor, Owdziej wanted to spend more time with her daughter, Mary Clare, now 16. So she became a part-time juvenile court referee, splitting the job with co-worker Molly Schikora.

Together they handled all cases, each working 2.5 days a week.

"I worked hard when I was here to make up for the fact that I was not here the other two and a half days," said Owdziej, whose husband, John, is also an attorney.

Schikora calls Owdziej "the perfect combination of smart, funny, and wise."

"In our work we are brought issues that are central to the wellbeing and even survival of the kids involved," said Schikora. "Julia takes that responsibility very seriously and very much to heart."

Then she added: "If she wasn't a Spartan, she'd be perfect."

In January 2011, Owdziej returned to fulltime work. She now has the combined job of deputy probate register and juvenile referee, and she is the referee presiding over the Juvenile Drug Court program.

She prefers working with juveniles, but more and more is appreciating her work on the probate side, which she says keeps her brain nimble.

The most frustrating part of her job is dealing with children who are delinquent as the obvious result of a negligent parent, she said.

Owdziej admires all the juvenile court employees who work tirelessly to help children and their families.

Sometimes the men are the only constant male figures in their lives.

One boy asked his probation officer to adopt him after the officer took him to yet another one of his dental appointments his mother couldn't be bothered to make.

When faced with burn-out, Owdziej says something positive inevitably happens to turn things around.

"When I send kids off, I always tell them to come back and let us know what great things they are doing," she said. "Every now and then, they do. That keeps us going."

Published: Mon, Oct 29, 2012

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