Home Law School News Foster children work with Drake law students to pass unique sibling visitation law in Iowa

Foster children work with Drake law students to pass unique sibling visitation law in Iowa

Law school students and faculty at Drake are trying to improve children’s rights in Iowa by trying out a novel idea — asking foster children themselves what laws need to be changed to better protect them, and then enlisting those foster children to lobby lawmakers to pass that legislation.

The legislation the foster children and law students are working to get passed would mandate visitation rights for siblings who are split up and placed into foster homes, and ensure that foster parents receive training about the need to accommodate those visits.

Jerry Foxhoven, director of the Middleton Center for Children’s Rights at Drake Law School and the former executive officer of the Iowa Child Advocacy Board, said ensuring sibling visitation rights was by far the most important issue that emerged in conversations with more than 100 foster children in the Greater Des Moines area.

“It was absolutely unanimous that they wanted to do something on this issue,” Foxhoven said.

If the bill passes, Iowa would be one of the few states in the nation to legally guarantee children the right to visit each other if they are split up by the courts.

“Very few states have sibling visitation laws,” he said. “Most would say ‘We try to do that already.’ The young people we’ve worked with are saying states need to do more than try. They want to know why they’re not being given regular visitation with their siblings, and they think foster parents need training to make sure those visits happen.”

Although courts try to keep children together when they are taken away from their parents and placed in foster homes, “We forget that focus when siblings are separated,” he said.

California is the only other state Foxhoven is aware of that has a sibling visitation law, and Iowa is the only one that will have foster children themselves lobbying for the proposed legislation, which he estimates has a 90 percent chance of passing.

Drake law students in the Legislative Practice Program drafted the bill and are meeting with legislative leaders to lobby for it. Rep. Kurt Swaim, D-Bloomfield, has introduced the bill (House File 480) in the House of Representatives, where it has been referred to the Human Resources Committee. Although the companion bill in the Senate has not been finalized, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Senate Minority Leader Mary Lundby have agreed to be co-sponsors of the measure, which also has garnered support from the Iowa Department of Human Services.

“I’m glad I was able to help facilitate this bill and I’m really enjoying being a part of the lobbying team,” said Tracie Gibler, a third-year law student from Des Moines. “Talking to the legislators, getting support, meeting with the House and Senate leaders and staff from the Department of Human Services — it’s all coming together. I hope it shows the children in foster care that what they want does matter and that they should be vocal about other issues that concern them as well.”