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Professor Pattison advocates for children's rights

September 22, 2015

Brent Pattison became inspired to be a lawyer for children while working at a homeless youth shelter in college. He saw court-involved children who were frustrated that their lawyers didn’t return their calls or explain their options. Court was a source of anxiety for them.

“It was then that I thought to myself, maybe that’s what I should do – be a lawyer for kids,” Pattison says. “I could see what a difference it would make for kids to have someone to advise them about the court process and advocate for what they wanted.”

Now the director of the Joan and Lyle Middleton Center for Children's Rights and associate clinical professor at Drake University Law School, Pattison advocates for children and teaches students interested in juvenile law.

In the Drake University Children’s Rights Clinic, third-year law students handle child welfare cases, juvenile delinquency cases, adoptions and guardianships, and more. They spend time interviewing foster parents, talking to social workers, reading medical and educational reports, working with experts, and getting to know the child.

When they go to court, the students take a position on a legal issue – for example, whether the child should be placed in foster care or kept at home.

“The great thing about the clinic is that students are doing this type of work in a setting with a big safety net,” Pattison says. “I’m there as a supervisor to make sure they do a great job, but my students do the lion’s share of the work.”

This past year, Drake Law students drafted and argued pretrial motions, litigated contested delinquency and Child in Need of Assistance (CINA) proceedings, obtained critical services for children, and helped reunify families.

One student identified an important jurisdictional issue in a CINA case that everyone else had missed. Another student researched and argued a complicated waiver of reasonable efforts issue, and the judge told her on the record he was impressed by her work.

“Students in the clinic really get an in-depth experience in juvenile court that they couldn’t get other places. It’s fantastic experience,” Pattison says.

In addition to his clinical work, Pattison and his students also do important training and policy advocacy through the Middleton Center for Children's Rights.

Every legislative session, the center proposes or supports bills that affect children’s rights. Pattison frequently attends sub-committee meetings to advise legislators and advocate for children, often bringing along Drake Law students. Recently, the Center proposed two bills that were successful in the legislature.

“We try to be actively engaged in what’s happening around the state in juvenile law and policy,” he says.

Technical assistance and training are also a main aspect of the Center. Along with Jerry Foxhoven, executive director of the Drake University Neal and Bea Smith Legal Clinic, Pattison did nearly 40 trainings last year on issues such as disproportionate minority representation in juvenile court cases.

In addition, Pattison is co-chair of the Quality Representation Task Force for the Iowa Children’s Justice Advisory Committee and co-chair of the ABA Children’s Rights Litigation Committee, which looks at children’s rights issues across the country and identifies solutions.

Pattison earned his J.D. from the University of Minnesota. Prior to coming to Drake, he worked at TeamChild, a Seattle-based legal advocacy project for kids, and then spent several years in private practice.

He applied to Drake Law School in 2010, and after visiting campus, he was sold.

“As soon as I saw what was being accomplished in the clinic and the Center, it was clear right away this was an amazing opportunity,” Pattison says. “I had other opportunities, but Drake really stood out.”

Now in his fifth year at Drake, Pattison says he’s happy being at the Law School and working to change children’s lives through both the clinic and Center.

“In the work that I do, I get to train other people who come to law school with a similar passion to do this kind of work,” Pattison says. “It’s great to help students prepare for a career where they can really make a difference for children.”