Our Stories

Warren Binford: Improving the World for Children

Warren Binford prefers stories as examples. Ask her to explain why she has taken particular paths in her life, and she typically responds with a story. But when asked for the reason behind her biggest passion -- protecting children -- she at first seems to be at a loss for an anecdote.

"I wish I had a good story for you," the Willamette University assistant professor of law says. "Children are just so full of innocence and hope. Unfortunately, through the experiences that many of our children have, their purity is exploited. I really just want to do everything I can to protect them so that young souls aren't corrupted."

She may struggle to come up with a story on the spot, but one only needs to look at Binford's life to find a plethora of poignant tales that have shaped who she is today: a self-appointed advocate for vulnerable youths. For students struggling to survive in inner-city Los Angeles schools. For children targeted by land mines in Croatia. For Salem youths dealing with painful custody battles.

The way Binford ended up at Willamette to direct the Clinical Law Program is a story in itself. But it's best to start at the beginning.

Into the City
It's Christmastime, and a young Binford is riding in a large yellow school bus from her elementary school in the San Fernando Valley to inner-city Los Angeles. The neighborhood is grimy, and the children there are of races that Binford isn't used to seeing at her private school. Her school is sponsoring this trip to deliver donated Christmas presents to those who can't afford them. The children on the street, many the same age as Binford, line up to take gifts from those who live just a few miles away. "It seemed so wrong to me," she says of the memory. "I could see that injustice early on."

Fast forward about 15 years, when Binford is teaching junior high in South Central Los Angeles. The inner city is where she feels she can make the most difference; she later goes on to teach in similar areas in Boston and London. "I always planned to be a lawyer, but I wanted to do some community service first," she says. "I thought working with kids in the community near where I grew up was a good way to do that."

Teaching in South Central L.A. was like being in a war zone, where gang members constantly were on the prowl, classroom windows were riddled with bullet holes, and she made sure to leave the area before nightfall when the real terror began. The experience affected Binford so dramatically that she became a bit overwhelmed, almost discouraged, as she continued her community service. But she didn't lose sight of her goal, and she enrolled in Harvard Law School.

Children of War
While in law school, Binford took time off to work with another group of children, those traumatized by war in the former Yugoslavia. Binford uses the word "genocide" to describe what she witnessed, where Serbs targeted children in Bosnia and Croatia, placing land mines in fields and even attaching explosives to toys. "They were trying to displace families by showing them that their homes are not safe for their kids," she says.

In an essay Binford wrote last year, she told another of her stories, one of a 6-year-old girl she met in the children's hospital in Zagreb, Croatia. The girl had been gang raped by Serbian solders after watching them rape and murder several of her family members. "There was nothing wrong with her, physically. ... Yet she was dead. She had been brutally killed spiritually and emotionally, and she lay in the hospital bed like a limp rag doll."

Leading at Willamette
After law school, Binford joined a large corporate law firm in California, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, where she specialized in commercial litigation and transactions. But after eight years of representing Fortune 500 companies, the pull of doing something more personally meaningful -- again for children -- drew her to Willamette. She came to the law school in 2005 as director of the Clinical Law Program.

The program helps students find externships and allows them to provide supervised legal assistance for non-profits and people who are economically disadvantaged. Family law, consumer fraud and other personal civil law matters are among the cases the program takes on. Since she arrived, Binford has focused on making the program more rigorous by implementing tougher standards for students. Instead of serving as junior associates, the students now act as the lead attorneys, handling all aspects of their cases.

A peek into the Clinical Law Program's lobby reveals foam blocks and toy farm animals on the floor. The toys are for the program's clients, many of whom are children in foster care or protective custody, or parents wanting to move on from troubled pasts.

Continuing Her Work
Binford never stops pondering what more she could take on. Her latest cause is supporting U.S. ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The treaty was created in 1989, and every country has ratified it except Somalia and the U.S. The convention is like a "Bill of Rights" for children -- saying that states should do what they can to ensure children have family, food and a safe place to live, among other rights.

Some provisions in the convention might make it more controversial for ratification, Binford admits, including an item that says children younger than 18 who commit crimes should not receive capital punishment or life imprisonment. But as with all her other projects, Binford can't ignore the young souls who need her help. Her passion is evident in the spitfire way she talks about the treaty.

"It's very shameful that we haven't ratified it yet. These are pretty fundamental rights set forth in the convention," she says. "I think the United States is probably the most blessed nation in the world, and because of all the blessings we have, it's important that we take a leadership role in the moral issues we face in society."