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Americas Editors' Picks Education Election 2016 National

The Nation’s Children: Hillary Clinton at the Yale Child Study Center


When Cristie Andrews, a graphic designer from Los Angeles, asked Hillary Clinton why she wanted to be president in an interview with Glamour magazine, Clinton’s answer was hardly surprising: children.

“I’ve worked on a lot of issues during my career, and I have a lot of detailed plans for many things I want to accomplish as president,” Clinton wrote to Andrews, “But the one issue that has always mattered the most to me is children. That has been the work of my life. That’s my motivation.”

Clinton’s investment in the lives of children is a focal point of her campaign. She drafted Yale New Haven Hospital’s legal procedures for instances in which adolescent patients show signs of parental abuse. She worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, representing the legal rights of low income, minority, abused children. She later advocated for the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act in Massachusetts, spurring lawmakers to make education a civil right for students with disabilities.

Four decades of legislative work traces back to Clinton’s time at Yale as a law student. In 1970, Clinton began her second year of law school with an intense focus on circumstances in which children had rights separate from their parents, a portion of family law that had received little prior attention. Two of her law professors, Jay Katz and Joe Goldstein, introduced Clinton to the Yale Child Study Center, where she began taking courses in child development, attending case discussions, and observing clinical sessions to enable her to better understand children’s needs and the failure of children’s law in recognizing those developmental needs.

While taking courses, Clinton simultaneously worked as a research assistant for Dr. Al Solnit, the then Center’s Director, and Dr. Sally Provence, the center’s chief clinician, as the two wrote “Beyond the Best Interests of a Child.” The book, which was then radical in shedding light on child custody cases, concluded that continuous care between a caregiver and a child crucially impacted children’s development.

“Her work on the book shows in her policy interests,” said Dr. James Comer, a current psychiatrist at the Child Study Center, in an interview with The Politic. “No other politician understands the ‘best interests’ of a child as she does. We know that the majority of children are not benefitted by foster cares and regularly changing caregivers. There is no substitute for a long-term, regular care. And she knew this.”

In addition to working as a research assistant, Clinton took classes at the Child Study Center, giving her access to lecturers and groundbreaking ideas in child study. Comer, who was also one of Clinton’s many lecturers, recounted the most significant idea she had been exposed to: “We used to think child study was all about psychology. But we now see examine child study through biological, psychological, and social lenses. I was just beginning to introduce those new lenses while she was here, so she was very much present at a turning point in child development. Today, those lenses are taken for granted, but back then, that was groundbreaking work,” he said.

Comer elaborated on the impact of the center’s work on Clinton’s legal and legislative work. “‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ was revolutionary then, but that all comes from what she learned here,” he said. “She learned that consistent care from guardians, that social settings, that school environments seriously change a child’s development. It all comes back to what she learned here.”

According to Comer, Clinton utilized that knowledge to profoundly change her political sphere. “There has been a serious change in how politics treats children’s issues. Just the realization that you need child care, affordable child care, and you need families to support each other through child birth, instead of a punitive and a controlled mentality related to families, is a recent development, and it’s largely her doing. She’s one of the few who is knowledgeable, and she brings that to the table,” he said.

Hillary Clinton’s interest in child development gained further traction during a year of postgraduate study at the center. During her postgraduate year, Clinton supplemented her time at the Yale Child Study Center with work at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, where she provided legal services to young and indigent clients with Penn Rhodeen, her supervisor at the New Haven Legal Assistance Office.

Rhodeen fondly remembers meeting Clinton, after her supervisor at the Child Study Center, Sally Provence, put the two in contact. In an interview with The Politic, he described her as, “this vision in purple. She wore a purple afghan coat with fleece on the inside, hide on the outside, with some purple embroidery. And she drove up to my office in a purple car.”

Her eccentric appearance, according to Rhodeen, mirrored her unique thinking and perspective. “She didn’t think like a second-year law student. People that age tended to put childhood behind them, tended to try not to associate with that part of their lives by thinking about children and childhood. She wasn’t that way at all,” he recounted.

According to Rhodeen, Clinton was an efficient and pragmatic law student. “She was warm and impactful, full of abundant energy, and intensely, exceptionally brilliant,” he said. “She helped me think through things, and I valued her presence immensely.”

In the New Haven Legal Services Office, Clinton used her clinical knowledge from the Child Study Center on a case regarding a foster parent who had taken care of a two year old girl since birth and wanted to adopt the child. Connecticut’s social services department had laws against foster parents adopting children. Rhodeen and Clinton fought in favor of the foster parent to no avail, and the baby girl was removed from the care of her foster parent.

In 1992, two decades after the hearing, Rhodeen received a surprising phone call from Clinton. “She wanted me to refresh her memory about the case we had worked on. It had been decades, but the case had clearly impacted her in some meaningful way,” said Rhodeen.

Using that case as an impetus, Clinton pushed to have the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, enabling thousands of children to move from a turbulent foster care system to permanent homes, reflecting her research work at the Child Study Center on “Beyond the Best Interests of a Child.”

According to Rhodeen, Clinton’s unusual drive to change legislation to benefit children is unique and personal. “Her mom was certainly neglected, maybe abused, and definitely not well-parented. And Clinton saw the effects of that uprising and felt personally connected to children’s care and children’s law,” Rhodeen explained, “And so she wanted to prevent other children from having that experience.”

But that commitment to changing legislation related to child care may have also stemmed from her dissatisfaction with existing legal practices as a law student. “She was a purist then,” recounted Rhodeen. “She was extremely idealistic and warm, and she wanted an argument for the best interests of children that wasn’t just political or utilitarian. That’s how she used to be, but that’s not how politicians saw children’s needs. The legislation wasn’t as pure or as idealistic.”

Today, that idealism still manifests itself in the Child Study Center through student assistants and clinicians who have taken children’s behavioral studies to new heights.

Jean Adnopoz, a clinical professor in the Child Study Center, has developed Intensive In-Home Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services (IICAPS), an intensive home-based service provided in a child’s home and community. The services are provided to children and youth returning from psychiatric hospitalization or who are at imminent risk of placement due to mental health issues, emotional disturbance, or substance abuse. “When Clinton was here, we were just starting to realize that it takes ‘a village’ to raise a child. That was still cutting-edge information. Now we know that a child’s community changes how they think, act, and feel. IICAPS capitalizes on that and changes a child’s very environment,” Adnopoz said in an interview with The Politic.

IICAPS includes a family therapy session and is based in a child’s home to subtly shift the child’s immediate context for lasting positive results. The program has since been implemented in 19 different sites in Connecticut and received government funding.

But the Child Study Center’s work involves more than clinicians and doctors; perhaps among those most influenced by the kinds of thinking that Clinton participated in are undergraduate students, looking to follow in Clinton’s footsteps. Joshua Monrad ’20 works as an undergraduate research assistant at the Yale Technology and Innovation lab, which is a part of the Child Study Center. There, he studies autism diagnosis and intervention by observing children’s behavioral patterns during clinical studies and recognizes the similarities between his work and Clinton’s experiences.

In an interview with The Politic, Monrad said, “It’s already incredible to attend the same school as so many historical figures have, so I was even more amazed to find out that Hillary Clinton has worked at the same place as I do now. Walking the same hallways as someone who might become our next president is very humbling.”

In 2008, Clinton returned to the Child Study Center, during her campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Rhodeen introduced her.

“She wanted small, intimate settings where she felt comfortable, instead of the big stadiums that Obama was doing. And the child study center certainly fit that bill,” said Rhodeen, remembering her visit back.

While speaking at the Child Study Center, Clinton became emotional, tearing up when Penn Rhodeen introduced her. Rhodeen recounted, “Back then, any honest display of emotions would be regarded as fake during that election season. But Clinton’s trip back was a homecoming. And homecomings are emotional.”