Trip to Panama to study adoption laws has educational, emotional impact on Campbell Law students
By Billy Liggett
Photos by assistant professor Lucas Osborn
RALEIGH — It took a trip to Panama for George Burnette to remember why he got into law in the first place.
“I originally came to law school to help people,” said Burnette — in his final semester as a student at Campbell University’s Norman A. Wiggins School of Law. “It is easy to forget that while in school. This trip sparked me to want to help people again. It solidified the idea that I want to do public interest law.”
Burnette and eight of his classmates accompanied assistant professor Lucas Osborn to Panama where the group researched the country’s adoption, foster care and orphan care laws and proposed legislation. For part of their trip, the group worked alongside Heart’s Cry Children’s Ministry — a nonprofit organization founded by Campbell Law graduate Misty Hedspeth (’03) and her husband Matthew that works to streamline the adoption process in Panama to make sure orphaned children are placed in loving homes both in and out of the country.
The experience proved to be both educational and emotional, said Osborn, who chose Panama not only because of the Hedspeth connection, but also because he wanted his students to experience the inner-workings of international law in a developing country while performing mission work at the same time.
“We focused on adoption laws because of Misty; not because Panama’s adoption laws are terribly unique,” Osborn said. “The country’s laws fall somewhere between freely allowing international adoption and not allowing it at all … perhaps closer to not allowing it, save for exceptional circumstances. Misty and Matt have been working the past few years to convince the Panamanian government to make the process more efficient. This was a good chance for us to both experience the law process up close in another country and learn more about adoption and foster care laws.”
Unintentionally, the students’ presence may have set in motion potential change in the way Panama’s government deals with juveniles in its justice system …
THREE GROUPS OF THREE
The nine students — Burnette, Caroline Gregory, Martha Hernandez, Jaime Lamphear, Brandon Patton, Brittany Taylor, David Williams, Nelia Willis and Hilary Workman — spent six of their seven days in Panama in the country’s capital, Panama City, population just under a million people.
Before the trip, the group learned the concept of international law through coursework and specifically studied the Hague Adoption Convention, an international agreement to safeguard intercountry adoption established in 1993 and entered into force in the United State in 2008.
“They learned about the civil law system, which Panama and most of the world runs on,” said Osborn. "As the world becomes more interconnected, it is important for American lawyers to have an understanding of how most of the world’s legal systems operate."
The nine students were broken up into three groups of three to focus on different projects upon arrival. The first group researched the Principle for Permanency — best practices to make sure children who are adopted are sent to homes where they have the best chance of remaining until adulthood. The students updated a legal memorandum on the topic, suggesting the foster parents in Panama have top priority for adoption of a child as long as they’re fit to adopt (Panamanian law currently does not allow foster parents to become permanent adoptive parents).
The second group wrote a policy manual of best practices for orphanages after studying the manuals penned by more developed countries and the United States. The Hedspeth’s organization was in need of such a manual for its orphanage that focuses on children with special needs.
The third group met with Panama’s government branch SENNIAF, which is responsible for coordinating and implementing policies to protect the rights of children and adolescents. SENNIAF officials were fascinated by Campbell University’s Juvenile Justice Project, an effort led by professor Jon Powell that uses a mediation-based approach in dealing with juveniles who break the law (the program brings victims and offenders together in an effort to foster collaborative healing rather than seek specific punishment).
“[Interim Law School] Dean Keith Faulkner spent about 30 minutes talking to their officials about it during our due diligence trip earlier in January, and they loved the idea,” Osborn said. “So our third group did a presentation in Spanish describing the program and its results. Now they want to meet with Prof. Powell at some point. It’s very neat how it all came about.”
Second-year law student Brandon Patton said effective communication is a huge part in being a lawyer, and his trip to Panama showed him the type of impact a lawyer can make through proper explanation of a law and through well-researched suggestions on how laws can be fixed.
“The adoption laws in Panama lead to a system of institutionalization that doesn't benefit anyone, least of all the kids that are in need of a family,” Patton said. “As a society, we have a responsibility to help kids who don’t have anyone else. Attorneys are specially positioned and equipped to make a big impact. The exposure we had in Panama will affect the way I approach things in my career and my ability to understand the impact of legislation on those that can do nothing about it.”
Second-year law student Brittany Taylor signed up for the trip because of her interest in international law. That interest before the trip, she said, was strictly a business interest.
Now, it’s a personal one.
“I now plan on incorporating international human rights into my studies,” she said. “Seeing firsthand the lives of these young children without a voice made me want to be their voice … or at least come up with a way in which their voice could be heard.”
In addition to meeting with government officials, researching and enjoying the occasional side-trip to the Panama Canal or other tourist spot, Campbell Law’s group spent time at two orphanages to not only meet the children, but play with them and connect on an emotional level.
The first visit was the Malambo Orphanage in Panama City, which Osborn was told was “by far” the nicest orphanage in the country.
“You definitely didn’t walk around thinking to yourself, ‘How in the world can these kids live here,’” Osborn said. “Nevertheless, there were a lot of children there. The nursery was crammed with cribs side-by-side.”
Osborn and his group spent an afternoon playing outdoors in 95-degree heat and humidity with several children — swinging, sliding, see-sawing and playing soccer. About 150 children lived there, eight of them HIV positive.
In a journal Osborn kept and shared with Campbell Law faculty during his trip, he wrote of the experience:
- “You would have been so proud of the Campbell students at the orphanage. They played their hearts out with the children from 1 to 5:30 p.m. This included two hours of sweating in the Panama heat on the playground … with kids aged about 6-9. Then we played indoors with the children who are between 0-2. Everyone was wonderful with the kids, even though more than one of them suffered ‘casualties’ from kids who were having too much fun to remember to take a potty break. Then we played with the kids in the HIV-positive ward. These kids were treated to pony rides ... airplane rides ... and lots of cuddling and playing.”
The second orphanage was a much smaller facility housing about 20 children who were victims of abuse.
“It's hard to understand the plight of these kids until you actually walk into the orphanages, see how they live and then see how excited they get just to be picked up or talked to,” Patton said. “Our visits provided a brief reprieve for them. It was heartbreaking when our time was up to just walk away from these kids knowing the kind of life they lead.”
After Panama City, the group traveled to Colon, located at the northern end of the Panama Canal (about 45 miles north of Panama City). Colon is where Misty and Matt Hedspeth are building their new orphanage for Heart’s Cry Children’s Ministry, and the group spent a day with sledgehammers and power washers to help fix up what is currently a shell of a former U.S. military building.
Osborn said the students’ experience with the Hedspeths was inspiring.
“Misty and Matt are working arm-in-arm with like-minded government officials and bringing about law changes for the good,” he said. “The students see that and are empowered by that. We really can move for change … and good change.”
David Williams said adoption law likely won’t be a part of his career after Campbell Law School, but the trip to Panama will impact his life thanks to Misty and Matt Hedspeth.
“Misty didn't attend Campbell Law as a part of any plan to end up in Panama, but God later called her to use her education in that way, and she responded,” Williams said. “The biggest desire I have for my own career is to be called to leverage my legal knowledge for the glory of God. Our trip to Panama reinforced that desire and encouraged me.”
Burnette said he had an immediate connection with the couple, and not just because he went to the same high school as Matt.
“Being around them and their kids and seeing the work that they are doing was really inspiring,” he said. “Being down there and in that environment also rejuvenated my faith and my relationship with God. I have tried to take those feelings that I experienced down there and bring them back to my life back here in the states.”
And Taylor said she will no longer take for granted growing up with in a family and in a country with so many opportunities.
“Professionally, I will take to never let my own culture dictate how I perceive things,” she said. “This experience provided me with a more open and tolerant mind that wants more than anything to help people in any way I can.”
Osborn called the trip a success and the first of many, he hopes.
“Our students interacted with a lot of Christians in Panama who said they were down there because that’s what God wants them to do,” he said. “Some of our students were impressed by that and impressed by seeing people live out their faith in such a dramatic way. Law students here tend to think they’ll graduate and go on to work in Raleigh and be whatever kind of lawyer their bosses want them to be. Misty Hedspeth thought that, too. She worked family law in Raleigh. Now she lives in Panama … and she’s inspiring others.”
"Querido Panama," or "Dear Panama" is a 16-minute documentary by a Voice for the Voiceless covering the injustice of Panamanian children losing their childhoods to 3-10 years of institutionalization with only a 2-percent chance for adoption or foster care. Matt Hedspeth of Heart's Cry International, an adoptive parent himself, says, “These children need to get out of orphanages as soon as possible. They are under the false impression that, well, they are at the orphanages, they have meals, a place to sleep and they are fine. But that is just so far from the truth. They are not fine.”
Learn more about Heart’s Cry Children’s Ministries, run by Campbell Law graduate Misty Hedspeth (’03) and her husband Matt at www.heartscrychildren.com