Lawmaking 101: Students Learn about the Legislative Process by Writing Bills with Foster Kids

By Stiny, Andrew | State Legislatures, October-November 2008 | Go to article overview
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Lawmaking 101: Students Learn about the Legislative Process by Writing Bills with Foster Kids


Stiny, Andrew, State Legislatures


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

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