Lawyers for Children
In Oklahoma County, a child is removed nearly every day from their home due to neglect or abuse. The county then holds an Emergency Show Cause hearing, where state agencies, lawyers and a judge determine where the child goes next. Every child in Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services care is required to have an attorney represent him or her throughout the entire process.
With 11,300-plus children currently in the custody of the state—two-thirds of that number in Oklahoma County alone—the demand for lawyers for children is great. Take into account that the Office of Juvenile Justice only has a handful of juvenile public defenders to work both the neglected children and the delinquent children, the workload becomes nearly impossible to imagine.
Because of that need, a specialized non-profit volunteer organization was created to protect the rights of abused, neglected and deprived children at hearings, which are held five days a week, 52 weeks a year. These volunteer lawyers provide legal representation to thousands of children in “the system,” fighting for what is in that child’s best interest.
Identifying a Problem
In 1997, Oklahoma City attorneys Don R. Nicholson, II and D. Kent Meyers attended a Child Watch Tour, where they and other attorneys visited the Oklahoma County Juvenile Justice Center and the Pauline Mayer Shelter. The two men were shocked at what the system had to deal with.
“Many people do not realize that every child taken into state custody is required by statute to have an attorney,” said Tsinena Bruno-Thompson, executive director for the Oklahoma Lawyers for Children. “There were 3,000 kids and only four public defenders working those thousands of cases, including the delinquent cases. Obviously, the hearings would be pushed back and back because there are only so many hours in a day. In addition, these defenders are expected to know every detail of every case, and that’s just not possible.”
After that tour, Nicholson and Meyers started recruiting volunteer attorneys to help these children. At first, the effort was tough. Not many attorneys were versed in juvenile law, but the number of attorneys willing to be a part of this organization grew and grew.
“I was in the first batch of volunteers,” said Bruno-Thompson, who was a commercial attorney at the time. “I was happy in my commercial world, but Don came in and said we needed to talk. He told me about a case, and the case was horrific. He said, ‘This child has no one. Will you help?’ I was hooked.”
In 1998, the Oklahoma County District Court Judges signed an administrative order allowing OLFC to be assigned cases directly from the Juvenile Public Defender’s office in order to begin representing the 5,000 children in the juvenile justice system at the time. By 2011, another administrative order authorized OLFC volunteers to be appointed in special circumstance cases arising in the District Court of Oklahoma County.
“Some of these cases, you just can’t believe,” Bruno-Thompson said. “The horrible stories you read in the paper? In reality, it’s five times worse. I don’t think most people could handle the facts that bring kids into the state’s custody.”
Each case is different. If the circumstances are found to be “heinous and shocking,” then the parents are not given the ability to try to rehabilitate to have their children back. These crimes include instances of sexual and physical abuse as well as extreme neglect. Other times, parents can work to correct the situation and problems in order to have children returned home.
Becoming a Solution
Today, more than 1,600 volunteers work with Oklahoma Lawyers for Children, 1,037 of whom are attorneys. The volunteer attorneys also provide Guardian Ad Litem services, assist children in obtaining medical and mental health services when needed, provide children with information and assistance and prepare them for life outside of foster care.
Because many attorneys do not specialize in juvenile law, the OLFC provides basic training in juvenile law for volunteers and also provides in-depth training, trial practice techniques and training on various other matters affecting the welfare of children of all ages.
“When kids are first taken into state custody, it’s chaotic,” said Judge Cassandra M. Williams, who was a volunteer with the organization before taking the bench. “You’re trying to get as much information as possible about what has happened, what the issues are. These volunteers are in for the long haul. You have to spend time with the child and figure out what that child’s best interests are. It’s not an easy volunteer position.”
Outside of the courtroom, the work continues. Volunteers help Oklahoma County children in foster care or shelters by coordinating foster home reassessments, hosting an annual free tennis clinic and outdoor picnic and organizing a mentorship program for foster kids nearing adulthood.
Funding is also a challenge for the organization. OLFC does not receive state or county funding and relies on fundraising efforts like the annual gala it hosts every fall.
“We have between 2,500 to 3,500 kids a year,” said Bruno-Thompson. “We represent every child that comes into custody and do the daily dockets. We are talking about children’s lives. We’re talking about children and families.”
OLFC accepts donations, which can be made by calling 405-232-4453. To volunteer or learn about the organization, visit www.olfc.org.