Lawmaking 101: students learn about the legislative process by writing bills with foster kids.
Law students and foster kids might seem an unlikely combination, but in Iowa it turned into a formula for new legislation.
The alliance was formed at the Middleton Center for Children's Rights at the Drake University Law School in Des Moines. The center features a Legislative Practice Program that allows law students to work with foster children to draft and pass laws that directly affect these kids' lives.
The law students sit down with children who are part of a program called Elevate 2 Inspire to find out what doesn't work in the system and what laws could be passed to bridge those gaps. The private, non profit group Children and Families of Iowa together with the Iowa General Assembly and the Iowa Department of Human Services, founded the program.
"The senators and representatives were very receptive to us," says Kendra Boatwright, one of five law students who was in the program in 2007. "They know they are going to be positive bills. Typically we are not asking for a lot of money. We are just asking for a good policy change."
Drake requires a lobbying internship and classroom work as part of its Center for Legislative Practice program. Completion of the program nets the student a Legislative Practice Certificate. While the certificate has no legal weight, it does indicate a student has "unique preparation in legislation and administrative rule-making procedures," according to the Drake Law School website.
Law Professor Jerry Foxhoven, who directs the Middleton Center and runs the one-of-a-kind program, says students also work with a professional lobbyist.
"Last year, out of five bills, three of them passed unanimously both in the House and the Senate," he says. Two of three bills were signed into law and one--an emancipation law--was vetoed by Governor Chet Culver because he thought it needed to include more protection.
"We'll be back with that one and some other bills next year," Foxhoven says.
REAL LIFE EXPERIENCE
The students work with the foster children "to identify problems that they think should change," says Foxhoven. The law students draft the legislation with explanations and descriptions that the foster kids can understand and the young people give them feedback.
Sean Bagniewski worked on the minor emancipation bill. It would have allowed foster children under age 16 who had no relationship with their birth parents to sign legal documents for things such as buying a car and getting a student loan. Working on the bill took two semesters one to learn how to draft legislation, and one as an intern to write the bill.
"It was a big idea that went through 12 drafts," he says. "We were just excited because it was an uphill climb from the beginning."
THE SOURCE MATTERS
It made a big difference that the bills were being funneled from the foster kids to the law students and then to the legislature, says Senator Jack Hatch, who represents some of the poorest and richest parts of Des Moines.
The fact that the bills came from foster kids "gave their issues immediate credibility," Hatch says. "This came from a grassroots constituent group.
"Their enthusiasm was infectious. They were as clear as any paid lobbyist," the senator adds. "We knew immediately that we had to do this."
Boatwright worked on a bill that requires the Iowa Department of Human Services to provide foster children with a copy of their birth certificate and a Social Security card before they leave the system.
"They are documents everyone needs to get a job and become part of society. It actually became law on July 1," she says.
The hands-on experience was invaluable for Boatwright, who is considering a career in government. "I learned more about the committee structure process and what a bill has to go through to become law."
Another bill guaranteed a college education to any foster child. Hatch believes it is the first such law in the country. "That was one of my proudest accomplishments," he says.
Involving the foster children in the process was key, says Hatch. "They drafted the legislation that the foster kids wanted," and very little wording in the bills was changed, says Hatch. "I don't think too many of them thought they would find themselves drafting legislation. They did it right."
Another bill that passed requires foster kids whose cases are being considered in court to be notified of their right to attend.
As part of his job as director of the Middleton Center, Foxhoven supervises his students, who represent foster children in court under an Iowa program that allows students to litigate as part of a law school clinic.
The Joan and Lyle Middleton Center for Children's Rights was formed as part of the Drake Legal Clinic in 2001. It was designed to provide law students with internships and training in the juvenile justice system. Under supervision, second- and third-year Drake law students learn about the system while practicing their craft in court.
Foxhoven said the views of foster children were often neglected. "When they were going home, they were often left out of that process."
The effort to create laws to help foster children is dynamic and ongoing.
The foster kids met in July to work on an agenda they would like the students to promote this year, says Foxhoven.
While the Drake students generally found legislators receptive, they also got a taste of the hard work of lawmaking.
"The downside is they treated us like professional lobbyists," says Bagniewski, who says sitting through legislative committee testimony until midnight and then coming back the next morning at 8 a.m. gave him a new perspective.
"I definitely appreciated legislators' lives," he says, "because it is not as easy as some people think."
YOUTH INVOLVEMENT ON THE RISE
The law students at Drake University learning to draft legislation are not the only young people getting involved in the political and legislative process. Young people are involved in this year's presidential campaigns in higher numbers than ever before, and the candidates are actively seeking the youth vote.
While youth involvement in politics has historically been sporadic, kids are participating in community service and becoming involved in grassroots efforts in higher numbers than ever before. And adults are responding by increasingly seeking out the opinions of young people and involving them in decision-making roles.
Efforts to involve young people in policymaking are gaining ground in state legislatures, as well. This year, four states passed legislation to start youth advisory councils for their legislatures--Alabama, Colorado, Indiana and Maryland. They join six other states that have established legislative youth advisory councils since 2002. The councils typically include young people who range in age from 14 to 21. The size of the councils vary from about 20 up to New Mexico's 112. In many states, legislators are appointed as nonvoting members, and, in some instances, they co-chair the councils with one of the youth members. Representative Ellen Roberts sponsored legislation to create such a council in Colorado this year.
"There's no better way to acquaint youth with the importance of finding their voice in representative democracy than to give them that opportunity firsthand," she says. "Forming a legislative youth council is one way to provide that opportunity and will also help legislators make better decisions on policies affecting our youth."
The councils have made a difference. New Mexico's Youth Alliance has provided input to the Legislature on issues ranging from truancy to early education to teen pregnancy. The Maine council has the authority to introduce legislation. Successful bills there have strengthened the rights of siblings in foster care to visit one another, and have standardized permission forms for young people in state custody (such as foster care) to participate in school trips and other extracurricular activities.
In addition, they provide a unique opportunity for young leaders to learn about and participate in government.
"I've learned to work with different kinds of people, and I've had the opportunity to work with adults on a more level playing field," says Kate Berry, Washington's former youth co-chair. "It's an amazing opportunity for kids to get involved, even if they can't vote."
--Stephanie Walton, NCSL
Andrew Stiny is a free-lance writer in Monterey. Calif.
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|Title Annotation:||NEW LEGISLATION|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2008|
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