Professor advocates for individuals with mental and physical disabilities

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Approximately three million children in this country suffer from a serious behavioral or emotional disorder. And yet, there is a severe nationwide shortage of community mental health services for these youngsters.

Professor Dennis Cichon of the Cooley Law School is passionate about the subject and enjoys sharing that passion with his students. He teaches Disabilities Law, Special Education Law, Mental Health Law, and Secured Transactions.

 “I’ve found that teaching law presents the best of both worlds,” he says. “I’m able to continue my activities as a public interest lawyer and also teach students that they can make a real difference as members of the legal profession.

 “Other than the medical field, I can think of no other profession that allows one to do so much good for other individuals and society as a whole.”

Cichon had his first taste of teaching as an adjunct professor at Grand Valley State College, shortly after receiving his bachelor’s degree from that institution.

 “I absolutely loved the experience and it planted the seed for a future career in teaching,” he says.

He went on to earn his J.D. degree from Ohio State University.

 “A typical long-haired idealist of the ‘70s, I entered law school with hopes of following in the footsteps of the great civil rights and other public interest lawyers who contributed so much to positive social change,” he says.

 “However, after only one year I considered dropping out of law school. I could not understand how subjects such as contracts, tax, and civil procedure were preparing me for a meaningful legal career.

 “Fortunately, that summer I accepted work-study employment with the American Civil Liberties Union. In that position, I observed great accomplishments by very good people who also happened to be lawyers.”

Re-energized, Cichon stayed with the ACLU through his final two years of law school.

 “Shortly after graduation, I was offered my dream job as staff attorney with the Ohio Legal Rights Service. This agency advocates for individuals with mental and physical disabilities, a truly disenfranchised population in our society.”

While Cichon enjoyed the practice of law, the teaching seed planted years earlier continued to grow. He eventually enrolled in Temple University School of Law’s L.L.M. legal education curriculum, a two-year program that confirmed his love of teaching.

After receiving his L.L.M., he accepted a faculty position with the University of South Dakota School of Law. While teaching several different courses, he became actively involved in the South Dakota mental health system, and served as principal draftsperson for a governor-appointed committee mandated to review and rewrite the South Dakota Mental Health Code.

Cichon discovered that the deficiencies in the South Dakota mental health services system were much the same as those in Ohio and most other states.

 “The lack of adequate mental health services has a catastrophic impact on children,” he says. “Several systemic reforms are necessary to ensure an adequate mental health services delivery system for children. Federal and state policymakers must work together on long-term plans for adequate funding of a comprehensive and diverse network of community services.”

Cichon, who has also served as a visiting professor at the Ohio State University College of Law and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, joined the Cooley faculty in 1994. He is a recipient of the Stanley E. Beattie Teaching Award.

His wife, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is also a professor at Cooley and directs the school’s Innocence Project.

“I’m very proud of Marla’s hard work and dedication to freeing those who have been wrongly convicted,” he says. 

Cichon authored  “Law and Mental Health Professionals,” a book published by the American Psychological Association. He has also written several journal articles and has presented papers on both a national and international level. His community activities have included service on the Advisory Council for the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Council and Board Member of the National Schizophrenia Association.

Cichon is an avid Tigers baseball fan and enjoys an eclectic range of music – from Bruce Springsteen to Miles Davis, to Buddy Guy, to Mavis Staples.

“I work out daily, trying to slow the ravages of age,” he says.  “I also fancy myself as somewhat of a wine connoisseur.”

But his favorite hobby is watching his 14-year-old daughter, Liah, dance as a member of the Greater Lansing Ballet Company. 

“She is the light of our lives.”

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