Every child in every family in every community deserves the chance to thrive. Often the best way to help a child is to make sure children and their families are supported and have access to high-quality legal representation in court-involved child welfare cases.
Yet access to high-quality legal representation continues to vary dramatically across Oklahoma.
National research shows that high-quality legal representation can help keep families together by preventing unnecessary removal and increasing reunification of families if they are separated. It increases the rate of children being safely returned to their parents and their extended families.
It decreases trauma resulting from family separation. It provides our juvenile judges with critical information so they can make the best possible decisions for families. It saves the state money by reducing the costs of foster care for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
People are also reading…
Fueled by the recommendations of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s Oversight Committee for Uniform Representation of Children and Parents in Cases Involving Abuse and Neglect, Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, and Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Moore, have introduced House Bill 1017 and Senate Bill 907.
These bills would create the Family Representation and Advocacy Act and create a centralized office to remove the barriers that currently exist for children and parents to obtain high-quality legal representation. This includes inadequate compensation for attorneys, lack of reasonable caseloads in the metro counties and inconsistency of practice by providing interdisciplinary support, centralized training and oversight, as well as access to legal expertise and technical assistance.
Attorneys contracting with the centralized office would provide legal representation for children and indigent parents, would be required to protect and advance their clients’ interests in court and would help their clients understand and feel empowered to participate in the legal process.
Attorneys would be expected to prepare for all court hearings by communicating with clients regularly and working with collateral contacts, such as foster parents, teachers and service providers. Caseloads would be capped at 80 clients to provide sufficient time for advocacy. Attorneys would be able to elect to represent parents, children or both, as well as provide representation in multiple counties.
To assist the attorneys and their clients, the centralized office would contract with social workers and peer mentors to provide access to interdisciplinary support that has been proven to enhance client trust and engagement. Interdisciplinary legal teams would promote tailored and specific case plans and services, address collateral issues that may affect the case such as housing, health care, disabilities, education needs and community supports.
Peer mentors are role models who provide guidance and encouragement based on a combination of training and personal first-hand experience in foster care and/or with the court and child welfare agency. Empowering and coaching clients through the process with DHS, the courts and other system representatives is an important aspect of this work.
The Family Representation and Advocacy Act would serve the critical purposes of providing support, training, accountability and resources for children and indigent parent clients. And most importantly, the creation of a central office would help ensure that parents and children receive high quality legal representation and improve outcomes for Oklahoma’s families.
Doris Fransein served as a Tulsa County district judge from 2002 to 2018 and as chief judge of the Juvenile Division from 2005 until retirement. She is credited with instituting best practices that improved outcomes for abused and neglected children, juvenile offenders and their families. She wrote this in partnership with the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.