By Clark M. Peters, JD, MSW, PhD
As a policy researcher, my current position as a professor at MU’s School of Social Work – with an appointment at the Truman School of Public Affairs and a courtesy appointment here at the law school – would certainly fall under the “nontraditional” category. The work I do, however, is very much in line with the goals I had as I entered law school: to engage with the challenges that effect society’s most vulnerable populations.
I had done some policy work before attending college, but decided that a JD would provide additional leverage to achieve social change. I attended Cornell Law School and was very much involved with public interest activities, especially legal aid clinic work and student organizing. I helped found a new journal, brought in speakers, and had leadership roles in various student groups. I spent my first summer at a large corporate law firm and my second summer on a law school public interest fellowship at the Youth Law Center, a national civil rights organization in San Francisco. It was at the YLC that I sharpened my interest in improving the way that the state cares for young people under its care – those in foster care, residential settings, and confinement.
That second summer internship led to a successful application for a Skadden Public Interest Fellowhip upon graduation. A “Skadden” provides salary and loan payments to new graduates engaged in public interest law. (If you have any interest in applying – and you should consider it! – please don’t hesitate to contact me.) As a staff attorney at the YLC for two years, I worked on class action lawsuits involving the abuse of detained children, conducted trainings for human service professionals, and wrote briefs on legal policy. I also took on some complicated individual cases from a local agency, Legal Services for Children, involving emancipation and guardianship.
After completing my fellowship, I was eager to return to the Midwest to be closer to friends and family. However, I found myself seeking a position in legal services at an inopportune time: recent cuts to the Legal Services Corporation had led to layoffs and a glut of experienced attorneys. Considering alternatives, I returned to my old college employer, Chapin Hall Center for Children, which, as it turns out, had been seeking to engage in research in the legal aspects of the child welfare system. What I thought would be a temporary research position turned out to be a satisfying decade working in an influential policy think tank informing local, state, and national conversations on how to care for young people in state care.
I have found that working in the realm of legal and social policy suits my specific talents and intellectual curiosity. Realizing that I planned to continue this work, I obtained a doctoral in social policy from the University of Chicago, which led to an invitation to join the faculty here at Mizzou. I am now able to continue my policy research work, teach at the undergraduate and graduate level, and join with policy makers at all levels as they wrestle with contemporary challenges regarding child welfare and juvenile justice. While I visit courtrooms now only to observe and gather data, I believe that my advocacy on behalf of young people plays an important role in improving their well being.