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FAMU Law Students Transform Theory Into Potential Legislation

It’s not often that graduate students get the opportunity to impact public policy, but if all goes well during an upcoming presentation to members of the Florida House of Representatives, three third-year students at the Florida A&M University College of Law may do just that.

Heather Barry, Keith Boykins and Julian Jackson-Fannin recently submitted to Florida’s Chief Child Advocate, Jim Kallinger, draft legislation that if implemented would require parents of children in state custody to pay child support to Florida. The goal is to defray some of the costs associated with the care and education of children in foster care and to deter parents from using that system to abdicate their responsibilities.

The students will present their proposal to two lawmakers in January, one of whom sits on the committee that has jurisdiction over the issue. If they like what they hear, they will seek co-sponsorship from a member of the state’s Senate and, if it ultimately becomes law, they will have helped set a precedent. A similar law exists for the parents of children who’ve become wards of the state due to juvenile delinquency.

“A lot of times these things are just conceptual ideas, but they’ve actually taken the concept, broken it down, and drafted a piece of legislation,” said Kallinger. “We dialogue through the process and they have questions, but we really do give them a lot of latitude to pull it together.” FAMU law students have worked with the state government and several government agencies for the past few years, conducting research and preparing presentations that Kallinger said have been well received.

Previously, FAMU students prepared a presentation that led to the ratification of a new Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children by Florida’s state legislature, which had previously declined to do so. “I would say they were very instrumental in educating leadership on the issue, which ultimately led to the ratification of that compact,” Kallinger said. He believes this sort of exposure enables the students to “see how public policy works—the good, bad and the ugly of government—and how we can improve the way we serve our citizens.”

Such experiences also give FAMU law students a competitive edge, said Ann Marie Cavazos, an assistant law professor who directs FAMU’s legal clinic program.

” With the demands of the marketplace today and the economy, people want graduates to hit the ground running. I look for every opportunity to enhance their practical skills with hands-on experience,” Cavazos said. “One way to do that is through the partnerships we have with the governor’s office and many other state agencies.” Taking an idea, researching it and crafting a comprehensive document that includes the issue’s strengths and weaknesses enhance the students’ research and writing skills, she added. More important, the experience makes the school’s graduates more appealing in the job market, particularly those who choose to go into public service, which many do.

“It’s a competitive world and a tough field,” Cavazos noted. “But I’ve seen a number of students hired by the prosecutor’s and public defenders office as a result of their training and working with them.” These and other government agencies are confident about their skills because they helped develop them.

Jacckson-Fannin, who actually plans to pursue a career in civil litigation, very much appreciated the trust in his group that Kallinger demonstrated. Law students, he said, learn in the classroom how to apply the law, “in this particular instance we got to actually make it.” It was a unique experience that enabled them to test the validity of their perspective by analyzing where it might be open to attack and looking for the weaknesses in their argument, which enabled them to produce a more refined document.

“We were really pleased that Kallinger liked what we did and receiving such positive feedback,” Jackson-Fannin said. “It will be unique if Florida enacts it and provides a disincentive for parents to just turn their children over to the states.”

It’s also another reason Cavazos believes such opportunities are so invaluable. “Students are required to do clinic or pro bono work so even if they work in the private sector, they always remember to give back and realize the need to do so,” Cavazos said. “They gain an appreciation for the work and don’t forget from whence they came.”

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