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When he was 9 years old, Gabriel J. Meints of Ames, Iowa, was separated from his biological sister through the foster care system. Now, 13 years later, Meints, 22, was able to tell his personal story to the Iowa Legislature, thanks to a group of law students from Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa. Drake’s law students, along with current and former foster care youth, drafted, lobbied and advocated for a state bill that would allow siblings separated through foster care arrangements to have mandatory visitation rights. Iowa Governor Chet Culver signed the bill into law on April 16. “You see that is very important for groups who wouldn’t have a voice to have someone to advocate for them,” said Tracie Gibler, a third-year law student at Drake University who worked to draft the legislation. “And we interns were the manpower to do that.” Asking questions Drake law students interning for credit with the law school’s Middleton Children’s Rights Center asked a group of foster care youth what changes they would like to see in the law, said Jerry Foxhoven, a professor at Drake’s law school and director of the center. They all wanted sibling visitation rights, he said. The foster care youth are part of an organization called Elevate, which educates the public on foster care through their own personal stories. The law students in Foxhoven’s program treated the members of Elevate, more than 70 young adults, as their clients, Foxhoven said. “They did research on [whether] any other state had similar laws,” he said. “When they found California was the only state with a similar law, they translated so the foster kids could understand it.” The law students approached the foster care youth to see what they wanted to change or add to California’s law, and then drafted a bill. Next, they approached the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services to make sure they would support the bill. When the department agreed, the students began lobbying members of the Iowa Legislature to sign on. After receiving enough support, they turned it into the Iowa Legislative Services Agency, which assists Iowa lawmakers, in December 2006, said Gibler. The United Way of Central Iowa provided an advocacy grant for the Middleton Center to hire a professional lobbyist to work with the law students, and also to provide stipends for the youth to travel to provide testimony before Iowa House and Senate subcommittees. “One of the legislators said he wasn’t going to sign onto the bill because he didn’t see why it was important,” said Tammy Maham, Elevate’s project director. “But after hearing their stories, he said he wanted the bill to go all the way.” The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously. Young adults from Elevate, the law students who drafted the legislation, Drake University Law School Dean David Walker and Drake University President David Maxwell all attended the governor’s signing. “We want to make sure they know we are going to be a part of it,” said Kayla Pettit, a 17-year-old high school student in Norwalk, Iowa, who hasn’t seen her biological brother in eight years. “We’re going to be there to cheer it on.”

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