Children & Families Deserve Access to High Quality Legal Representation

Oklahoma City – For the first part of each year, the main focus for the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) is to track legislation at our State Capitol. We also work to raise awareness about those significant ideas working their way through the system.

We often partner with champions working on specific ideas. I am proud to count retired Judge Doris Fransein from Tulsa as one of those heroes. The following are thoughts that she shares about a potential new law under consideration by the Oklahoma Legislature.

“Every child in every family in every community deserves the chance to thrive. Oftentimes, 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 decision for families. It saves the state money by reducing the costs of foster care by DHS.

Fueled by the recommendations of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s Oversight Committee for Uniform Representation of Children & 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 for children and parents to high-quality legal representation that currently exists, such as 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 and be required to protect and advance their client’s interests in court and help their clients understand and feel empowered to participate in the legal process. Attorneys will be expected to prepare for all court hearings by communicating with clients regularly as well as working with collateral contacts, such as foster parents, teachers, and service providers. Caseloads will be capped at 80 clients to provide sufficient time for advocacy. Attorneys can elect to represent parents, children, or both ,as well as, providing representation in multiple counties.

To assist the attorneys and their clients, the centralized office will 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 promote tailored and specific case plans and services, and address collateral issues that may affect the case such as housing, health care, disabilities, education needs, and community support. 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.”

I am grateful to Judge Fransein for her support for the Family Representation and Advocacy Act. Sufficient legislative appropriations will reduce the delays in achieving permanency and helps children and families reach better, long-term outcomes. OICA enthusiastically encourages your support for these bills.

Note: The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy is celebrating its 40th Anniversary in 2023. The organization was established in 1983 “by a group of citizens seeking to create a strong advocacy network that would provide a voice for the needs of children and youth in Oklahoma, particularly those in the state’s care and those growing up amid poverty, violence, abuse and neglect, disparities, or other situations that put their lives and future at risk.” The Group’s Mission Statement: “Creating awareness, taking action and changing policy to improve the health, safety, and well-being of Oklahoma’s children.”