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January 01, 2005

Human Rights Heroes

by Wilson Adam Schooley

Fittingly, the four heroes we celebrate in this issue of Human Rights are women: Margaret Brodkin, Carol Kamin, Jane Spinak, and Barbara Bennett Woodhouse. Once upon a time, heroes were understood to be valiant men who rescued those too vulnerable to protect themselves, often women. Thankfully, this country is at last emerging from that perspective, and we can here recognize these four valiant women as heroes while simultaneously drawing attention to a population that truly is vulnerable and in dire need of protection: our children.

Because of that vulnerability, children’s issues present a challenge that is both unique and, at the same time, connected with almost every crisis in the world today. In Iraq, malnutrition among children has nearly doubled since the U.S.-led invasion. In the recent tsunami disaster, many of the dead were children and countless more children were orphaned, with effects rippling across the region, including the need to protect displaced children from labor and sex traffickers. In Africa, perhaps the biggest killers of children are bacterial infections preventable by simple vaccinations. Here in California, a penal system that incarcerates delinquent youth has been revealed as a draconian nightmare that must be dismantled and reformed.

We are therefore fortunate to have heroes like Brodkin, Kamin, Spinak, and Woodhouse, who have devoted their hearts and their life’s work to children—and whose passion and perseverance give us hope for our children’s future.

Margaret Brodkin

Late in 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome announced his appointment of the new executive director of the Department of Children, Youth and their Families, one of the few city departments in the country dedicated exclusively to young people. Appropriately, his choice was Margaret Brodkin, executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, among San Francisco’s most respected and influential organizations, which has long made children one of the city’s highest priorities. As Newsome said at the time: “Margaret has been a pioneer in developing the theory and practice of local child advocacy. Under her leadership, Coleman Advocates’ work is known nationally, and is being replicated in communities throughout the country.”

Brodkin is a licensed clinical social worker who has spent much of her life advocating on behalf of children. In 1991, she was the moving force behind the Children’s Amendment, the first local children’s budget initiative in the nation. This voter initiative brought together a diverse new coalition and created a Children’s Fund that brought in $170 million dollars during its first ten years. The amendment was hailed as a “fiscal bill of rights for children,” capturing national attention for what the Washington Post characterized as a “daring assault on the political establishment.” For the past decade, much of Ms. Brodkin’s work has focused on increasing civic engagement in public policy making for youth, such as through the vocal, forceful youth advocacy organization, Youth Making a Change.

Due largely to Coleman Advocates’ work, San Francisco leads the nation in its child care policies, providing local wage subsidies for all child care workers, funding local facilities, subsidizing and enhancing child care centers, and spearheading the national opposition to the commercialization of schools. Brodkin is an articulate and passionate advocate for social justice for children, and we can expect in her new role that she will lead the way in enhancing the lives of children and youth through innovative partnerships with parents and youth, community organizations, schools, and the private sector.

Carol Kamin

Carol Kamin is another dynamo in the field of children’s advocacy. As president and CEO of Children’s Action Alliance, a nonprofit research and policy development organization that advocates on behalf of Arizona’s children, she is certainly Arizona’s foremost child advocate. Following her service as state administrator for Children, Youth, and Families, Governor Bruce Babbitt appointed her the first director of the Governor’s Office for Children. She helped design the human services and education agendas for Phoenix. She is a board member of many state and national organizations, including WestEd, Voices for America’s Children, and the Arizona Women’s Forum. Kamin has been named by the Arizona press as one of the most influential state leaders for bringing vital children’s issues to the forefront. She is the recipient of many honors, including the Citizen of the Year Award from the National Association of Social Workers, Arizona Chapter; the Andy Nichols Honor Award for contribution to Public Health; the Florette Angel Memorial Child Advocacy Award from the National Association of Child Advocates; the 1995 Public Interest Award from the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest; the “Magic Bullet” Award from Honeywell, Inc. for “providing a strong and effective voice for Arizona’s children”; and the Governor’s Citation of Merit for Outstanding Service to the State of Arizona.

Throughout all of Kamin’s wonderful work, it is not the issues of the causes but the children themselves who have been the core of her concern, and she, in turn, is—literally and figuratively—surrounded by their love.

Jane Spinak

Professor Jane Spinak has devoted thirty years of teaching and advocacy to all aspects of children’s law, child welfare, juvenile justice policy, and legal clinical teaching. She is the Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor at Columbia University Law School and director of the school’s clinical program. She took almost four years’ leave to serve as the lead attorney of the Juvenile Rights Division of the New York Legal Aid Society, the largest child advocacy office in the country.

She was cofounder of the Child Advocacy Clinic (CAC) and the Family Advocacy Clinic at Columbia and has helped develop child advocacy clinics at schools in Central and Eastern Europe. The CAC has provided representation for children in family court child welfare cases for twenty years. Crucial to the current program is its collaborative relationship with Legal Aid’s Juvenile Rights Division. While in charge of the division, Spinak realized how much child advocacy students can learn when they work with attorneys focusing on the same issues. For example, students have been assisting in a case about whether a mother victimized by domestic violence can be charged with child neglect if her children witness the violence.

The CAC has also been active in legislative and policy reform. The CAC recently received a grant to expand representation to include undocumented children in foster care who qualify for special juvenile immigration status and who may therefore be granted legal permanent residency. Without that status, these children face critical legal disadvantages.

Spinak is a member of the steering committee of the Institute for Child and Family Policy, which recently produced—with her as senior advisor—“Failure to Protect: A National Dialogue,” which aired as a follow-up to a Frontline documentary series on Maine’s child protective system and which received a Dupont Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism. She is on the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children and has authored books and articles for child advocates and judges on child welfare and family court.

Before graduating from NYU Law School, Spinak taught high school. Ever since, at the core of her work, has been a drive to develop the highest standards for representing children and to impart those standards to her students, so that they may blossom as child advocates in their own right.

Barbara Bennett Woodhouse

Professor Barbara Bennett Woodhouse is an international leader in the field of children’s rights. Her recent work alone includes starting a center on children and families at the University of Florida to train advocates for children, coauthoring amicus briefs in several significant cases, and finishing various articles on children’s rights and a forthcoming book called, appropriately for this profile, The Courage of Innocence: Children as Heroes in the Struggle for Justice.

She holds the David H. Levin Chair in Family Law at the Fredric G. Levin College of Law, is director of the Center on Children and Families, and is codirector of the University of Florida Institute for Child & Adolescent Research and Evaluation. Trained at Columbia University’s pioneering Child Advocacy Clinic, Woodhouse clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and was previously professor of law and cofounder of the Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research at the University of Pennsylvania. She is now a vice-chair of the our own ABA IR&R Committee on the Rights of the Child, serves on the Executive Council of the International Society of Family Law, and is an editor of the Family Court Review and the Journal of Law, Psychology and Public Policy.

The Center on Children and Families functions on the guiding principle that children, our least powerful citizens, are the most in need of high-quality advocacy. It works to further that advocacy by promoting quality scholarship on children’s issues, training advocates for children and their families, educating children about their rights and responsibilities, and promoting child-centered methods for studying systems serving children. The center strives to create programs and resources that bring an interdisciplinary, evidence-based, and child-centered approach to issues of children’s law and policy.

Woodhouse’s own story is charged with the force of a person driven by both strength of conviction and compassion regarding children’s issues. After a love of languages led her to study in Italy, England, and France, she returned to become a nursery school teacher, community activist, and adjunct professor of languages, all while raising a family and becoming increasingly focused on child welfare. Eager for more tools with which to convert her ideals to action, the thirty-five-year-old mother of three (including a foster child) enrolled in Columbia University Law School and became involved in the pilot clinical program for children’s advocacy that provided her first exposure to an interdisciplinary teamwork approach for addressing child welfare issues. Today, she continues that approach and commitment with undimmed fervor and success.

Human Rights celebrates and congratulates each of these heroes, with both gratitude and the hope that their work will inspire others to advocate on behalf our most powerless population: the world’s children.

Wilson Adam Schooley

Wilson Adam Schooley, a member of the Human Rights Editorial Board and special issue editor of this Winter 2005 issue on children’s rights, is an adjunct law professor, writer, actor, photographer, and attorney practicing with the Schooley Law Group in La Mesa, California.