Profiles in Scholarship

Jane M. Spinak

The Advocate

From her days as a teacher in New England to her position at the forefront of child advocacy, Professor Jane Spinak has kept her sights set on helping kids

By Mary Johnson

Winter 2010

Professor Jane M. Spinak, director of Columbia Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic, believes in learning by doing. She built a career by getting out of her small-town comfort zone and diving into the trenches, and she expects her students to take a similar approach. When they do, Spinak says with a smile, the results speak
for themselves.

Last year, a team of students in her clinic crafted a thought-provoking letter to the commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) recommending changes they knew could improve the lives of foster children approaching the age when they would no longer be eligible for government-sponsored services. The students’ conviction stemmed from their firsthand experiences representing these adolescents, learning about their lives, and listening to their stories of struggle.

“In the clinic, we spend a lot of time thinking about who these youths are and what communities they come from,” says Spinak, who has taught at the Law School
for 27 years. “What are their cultural experiences? What are their life experiences?
For many students, it’s an introduction to a world they’re not familiar with—as it was for me.”

Before coming to New York for law school in 1976, Spinak had little knowledge of the poor, abused, neglected, undereducated, and underserved children who have now become the focal point of her life’s work. “I grew up in a small town,” she recalls. “I went to school in a small town. I taught high school in a small town.”

As she learned more about the issues surrounding children’s rights, Spinak realized “this was a population that needed advocacy.” She briefly contemplated education
law, but a clerkship with the general counsel of the New York City Board of Education quickly cured her of that. “It didn’t seem very connected to working with young people,” notes Spinak, a petite woman with brown eyes and layers of ginger locks.
“It made me realize I didn’t want to represent an institution. I’m an advocate
for individuals.”

Spinak has maintained that focus ever since. The girl from the foothills of the Adirondacks has been a consummate New Yorker for the past 33 years, and big-city life has won her over. It has also allowed her to enjoy a remarkable career doing what she loves: protecting the rights of children and families.

Almost three decades after she agreed to run the Child Advocacy Clinic at the Law School, Spinak has helped change public policy, formed innovative advocacy organizations, and inspired students to make public interest law a part of their future careers. It’s a track record embodied by the student team that wrote the letter to ACS last year: They negotiated important, individual results for clients, but their efforts in the clinic also stand to promote systemic change. The letter caught the attention of several decision-makers at ACS, who suggested a meeting this fall between the organization and members of Spinak’s clinic. The meeting could be the first step in improving the lives of countless youths across the city—and that possibility fills the passionate professor with pride.

“What actually stays with you more is not the results of any individual case, but that as a program, we’ve been able to shape the way children and adults in the child welfare system are represented,” Spinak says. “I think, as a program, we’ve really had that impact.”

Illustration by Stephen Gardner