Profile in Brief: Joe Kozakiewicz - Chance at Childhood

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By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Joe Kozakiewicz and his wife have seven children, ranging in age from 2 to 19.

So it's not surprising this New York State native is passionate about helping kids and has devoted his career to that cause.

Since 2003, Kozakiewicz has been Director of the Chance at Childhood Clinic at Michigan State University. The interdisciplinary program, sponsored by the School of Social Work and College of Law, promotes and protects the well-being of children and families through integrated education and advocacy.

"I enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of the program," he says. "Law students gain an appreciation for the non-legal -- social science -- aspects of practicing with children involved in the courts. They gain an appreciation and better understanding of the work other professionals due to help ensure that court cases are resolved in the best interest of children.

"This is a field where you can practice law as a 'helping profession,' which is what always drew me to the field -- not about winning or losing but rather improving family and children's conditions."

The program offers the Child and Family Advocacy Certificate Program for law and social work students; continuing education seminars and workshops; and a Law and Social Work Clinic that provides training for careers in child welfare, legal representation to children, and consultation to practitioners and community members.

The program, an outcome of a child advocacy commission designated in 1998 by Connie Binsfeld, former Michigan lieutenant governor, brings together lawyers and social workers who are often at odds because of differences in educational backgrounds.

Alumni of the program have reported they are more knowledgeable and comfortable working in the field because of their experience at Chance at Childhood, he says. He also notes that student work has positively impacted the legal system and judges, and that court staff are impressed with the students' professionalism and ability to advocate effectively for children.

Kozakiewicz and his team -- Educational Program Director Kim Steed and attorney Delanie Pope -- balance the education of students with meeting community needs.

In one initiative, funded by a grant from the State Court Administration Office and the only one of its kind in the country that is run through a university program, students supervise parental visits, enabling more parents to spend time with their children in a safe environment.

"The students we have are very enthusiastic to learn and gain practical experience for the first time," he says. "MSU, as a land-grant university, highly values the integration of classroom education with practice experience and community outreach."

Kozakiewicz brought a wealth of experience to the position. After earning his bachelor's in political science and sociology, and law degree, from Columbia University, he moved to San Diego where he practiced business and securities law for three years.

"Law always seemed interesting to me and I focused on that profession from a very young age," he says. "Business and securities came about as a default. No interest in litigation and that area of transactional work was booming when I graduated."

Kozakiewicz, who in his spare time enjoys biking, running, tennis, reading, jazz, and opera, taught at the University of San Diego School of Law for four years before relocating to West Michigan.

In 1997, he began working for the Children's Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for children in variety of legal matters; and from 1998 to 2003, worked for the Ottawa County Family Court, first as a referee conducting hearings in a variety of family court cases, and then as the Director of the Friend of the Court.

He returned to school to earn a master's degree in social work from Grand Valley State University.

"I viewed law as a 'helping profession,' and when I began practice in child welfare I realized I was very lacking in knowledge about child development, family dynamics and other areas that I believe are key to successful practice in this area," he says.

One special case sticks in his mind, where the court deemed a man as an "equitable parent" of a 4-year-old he had raised as his own. After those four years, this man had a falling out with the mother, to whom he was not married. She then alleged he was not really the father and had the natural father seek to be deemed the legal father.

"The court ruled in her favor, but based on our petition also deemed the man who had actually raised the child to be an equitable parent who would have ongoing parenting time with the child."

Published: Wed, Aug 10, 2011

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