Giving Children a Voice

The Middleton Center for Children’s Rights brings real-life training to law students while making a difference for kids

When the four-year-old girl who was receiving legal and advocacy services at the Drake Legal Clinic bore telltale signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Drake social worker Annie von Gillern saw a teachable moment.

“This little girl had the characteristic facial features and behaviors, although she’d never been diagnosed with the syndrome,” says von Gillern, who provides support and instruction to the law and social work students who learn by doing at the Joan and Lyle Middleton Center for Children’s Rights, a teaching and community resource on Drake’s campus.

Von Gillern took the graduate students to visit the girl’s school, where staff related some problematic behaviors — behaviors that hadn’t been noted at home — that were hindering the preschooler’s success and development. Following a group “Aha!” moment, the students began navigating the subsequent legal processes to provide their young client with the help she needed: asking the judge for an order, finding transportation for the family, getting recommendations from doctors and more.

That’s the kind of interdisciplinary cooperation and problem solving that takes place every day at Middleton Center. The center provides a fertile, real-world training ground for budding lawyers, social workers, educators and school administrators. But even beyond its instructional goals, the Drake resource serves a much higher purpose: giving Iowa children a voice.

Righting the system, educating for the future

The Middleton Center, which was added to the Drake Legal Clinic in 2001, was created as a direct response to community need. Drake Law School had been approached by Iowa judges, lawyers and children’s rights advocates who expressed concern that the state’s children were being under-represented, particularly in cases involving delinquency, education, child abuse and neglect.

Drake responded by building a pioneering, interdisciplinary center to leverage the expertise of many to provide for the needs that children in the legal system face. Students also work to shape public policy for the good of children, particularly those in the foster care system.

The center relies on the talents of students in Drake’s law and graduate education programs as well as students from the University of Iowa’s social work program. Working with the student team are Drake professors; in-house social worker von Gillern; and the practicing judges, legislators, teachers and school administrators who also contribute to the process.

Ultimately, the center not only provides multidisciplinary training to students but also helps professionals grow in their understanding of the needs and potential issues shouldered by children in the juvenile justice system.

Making a difference in kids’ lives

The Middleton Center came into being thanks to a generous gift from Joan, ED’63, GR’77, and the late Lyle, LA’61, LW’64,  Middleton, alumni with a passion for education, law and children’s rights.

“When Joan and Lyle created the center, they knew that kids needed a collaborative approach where the focus was not on just one thing but on social work, education and the law,” says Jerry Foxhoven, executive director of the Drake Legal Clinic. “Then Drake took the collaboration the Middletons envisioned to a whole new level. Through the Middleton Center, Drake students are making a difference in the lives of kids.”

Foxhoven began leading the Middleton Center in its fifth year, and in summer 2011, the 10th anniversary of the program, he passed the reins to incoming director Brent Pattison. Pattison had worked as a lawyer and justice fellow with TeamChild in Seattle before serving a stint as a civil litigator.

“Part of what excites me about Middleton is getting back to doing work that really matters to me,” says Pattison. “Before I went to law school, I taught special education in Baton Rouge. I learned really quickly the problems that big, urban schools have and some of the inequities that are part of public school systems. And I learned that one way to address problems for kids was advocating for their legal rights. It was partly my experience as a teacher that led me to go to law school.”

The law students who serve at Middleton commit to do so for a year (the typical law clinic commitment is one semester), as consistency and continuity are in the best interest of their young clients. In addition to providing a valuable service, the students gain solid experience in lawyering  by going to court, reading legal documents, working with witnesses and leading cross examination. In addition, they also pick up the soft skills that can spell the difference between a competent lawyer and an outstanding one.

“Many of the kids we work with don’t have a lot of experience in trusting relationships with adults,” says Pattison. “They’ve been let down a lot. Building appropriate relationships and trust to advocate for what these kids want and what they need is a huge part of the work we do, and of what the students learn.”

Student finds passion for juvenile law

When Lynn Poschner, LW’07, was seeking an experience at the Drake Law Clinic while she was a student at Drake, the Middleton Center was not her preference.

“At first I wasn’t happy about it — I had requested to be put into the general law clinic,” recalls Poschner with a laugh. “But today, as a result, juvenile law is a large part of my practice by choice.”

The Drake alumna is now a lawyer with Borseth Law Office in Altoona, IA, practicing primarily in the areas of family, juvenile and criminal law. It was during her time at Drake, spent serving clients at the Middleton Center, that she discovered a passion for practicing law for the benefit of children and their families.

“I like the collaboration that’s required — conducting family team meetings and working to arrive at solutions together. It’s a more creative approach,” says Poschner. “And by the time I graduated, I already felt like I had a leg up in the field.”

Her time at the Middleton Center, she says, gave her an opportunity to immediately practice what she was learning. In addition to poring over files and preparing for hearings, she met with clients in group settings, at their homes and in foster care; attended hearings; and represented her clients in meetings with the Department of Human Services.

“My clients looked to me as their attorney — anything a practicing attorney would have done to represent the child was what I did,” says Poschner. “It was certainly the best learning experience I had in law school. I think so highly of Middleton and the opportunity I had there.”

Changing the face of juvenile court, foster care

As law students learn to navigate Iowa’s juvenile court system, the children and families whose lives are affected by it benefit greatly.

“There really was never any collaboration in juvenile court before Middleton Center,” says Foxhoven. “The system was operating in silos. What we’re doing here has changed everything.”

The work of student advocates and interdisciplinary collaborators not only makes a difference in outcomes for kids dealing with situations of physical abuse, neglect, substance abuse or delinquency; it has also resulted in systemic change through Middleton Center’s mission to promote legislation to help children in foster care.

This kind of meaningful change is being made possible through Drake Law’s work with a statewide foster care youth program — previously called Elevate, now known as Achieving Maximum Potential, or AMP.

“We thought we should have the kids decide what needed to be changed and treat these kids in the foster system as constituents,” says Foxhoven. “There was resistance at first — some thought that the kids would ask for frivolous things. But that didn’t happen at all. We wanted to teach kids that you don’t have to just put up with it if the system isn’t working.”

Drake Law students work with foster care kids to write legislation, and then find sponsors and lobby for bill passage. The first law to emerge from this alliance of Drake students and foster kids mandated that siblings who are placed in different homes have the right to see each other.

“Kids from Elevate who helped work on the bill were present for its signing, and the senate floor applauded,” recalls Foxhoven. “One legislator looked at the kids and stated that he’d never been so proud of a piece of legislation.” Other important laws have followed — giving foster kids the right to go to court and to be in meetings where their future is discussed.

Working together in a non-adversarial way

Lawyers and social workers often work in an environment where their goals are seen as being at odds. But the relationship between the two doesn’t have to be that way, says von Gillern.

She speaks from the unique perspective of someone who has respect for — and background in — both fields: Von Gillern is in her sixth year as a social worker at Drake but is in her fourth year as a part-time Drake Law student, scheduled to graduate in May 2013.

“Middleton provides a great model of how lawyers, social workers and educators can work together in a non-adversarial way,” says von Gillern. She imparts social work knowledge and skills to Drake Law students, educating them on child welfare policies, steps for accessing services and child development as well as issues of therapy, substance abuse and mental health.

“I don’t lecture, but the teaching happens as we go through real cases,” she says. “We work together to collect and interpret documents and put together the pieces of why a development or situation is important to this individual child.”

Adding educators to this mix, says Pattison, results in students who are better equipped to deal with the complex issues that plague children in the judicial and foster care systems.

“What we’re concerned with is much more than questions of custody and placement,” says Pattison. “Kids in foster care graduate at significantly lower rate and are overrepresented in special education. Educators who are specialists like we have at Drake, who can think through those big educational problems, are of huge benefit to our clients and are a benefit to our law students.

The result of all of this collaboration is a program that is poised to change the face of child advocacy in Iowa, Foxhoven believes.

“While I’ve been part of the Middleton Center and asked to be able to do something, the only question I’ve ever gotten is, ‘Is it good for the kids?’ If so, we could do it,” says Foxhoven. “That’s why Drake is such a cool place to be. It isn’t about how much it costs, what the donors think or how it makes us look. It’s about what’s at the core of our mission — doing what’s good for kids and doing what is right.”

Visit www.middleton.drake.edu for more information on the Joan and Lyle Middleton Center for Children’s Rights.

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