FALL 2000 ISSUE

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In the 1960s, a passion for romance languages and fine arts led Barbara Bennett Woodhouse to study at Universita per Stranieri in Italy, Sir John Cass College of Fine Arts in England, and l'Universite de Caen in France. The galleries and museums she visited displayed centuries of European paintings illustrating the unspoken bond between mother and child, most poignantly in infinite depictions of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus to her bosom. No image in the Christian faith is more potent than this illustration of God's love for humankind. Woodhouse, the scholar, was studying these transcendent images.

Woodhouse returned to the United States, and after years working as a nursery school teacher, a community activist, an adjunct professor of languages, and mother she focused her interests on issues of child welfare. While raising her family in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, Woodhouse helped to create a program in the local school system for children with special education needs. Seizing on a more formalized way to translate her burgeoning ideals into action, she applied to law school. "The law," Woodhouse explains, "provides a means to both have ideas about change and to persuade people to accept your ideas." She recalls that in community meetings, "when a lawyer spoke, people listened."

In 1981, the 35-year-old mother of three (including one foster child) enrolled in Columbia University Law School, where courses in constitutional law and involvement in a pilot clinical program for children's advocacy greatly influenced her legal development. The clinic provided her first exposure to an interdisciplinary teamwork approach for addressing child welfare issues, integrating and coordinating the specialized expertise of all the professionals involved. Woodhouse decided to make this innovative interdisciplinary style a hallmark of her research, practice, and teaching.

At Penn Law, Woodhouse teaches a range of interrelated courses addressing issues related to family and child welfare, public policy and constitutional and human rights. An emphasis on interactive teaching tools, particularly simulations of cases and role-playing, distinguishes her teaching style. In last Spring's Child, Parent and State course, students participated in a semester-long simulated case dealing with three abandoned children. By lottery, students were assigned roles such as the children's parent, social worker, or lawyer.

Woodhouse also invited Philadelphia family court judges and prominent child welfare professionals to participate in the process. Guests included Carol Williams, the former Associate Commissioner of the Children's Bureau at the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families; Laval Miller-Wilson L'95 from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia; and Cathyrn Miller-Wilson L'93 from the Philadelphia-based Support Center for Child Advocates.

Third-year law student Sheila Khan-Variba observes, "I can't think of a more effective way to teach child advocacy. We learned how to conduct investigative work and ask the right questions because we didn't have all the facts up front. Often that's how it plays out, because lawyers often don't have crucial information. For example, they may know nothing about the child's parents." Khan-Variba praises Woodhouse as a teacher, describing her as patient and personable. "Educating us is her top priority, and she wants to do it in the most effective way. She allowed us to develop our own ideas and thoughts."