(In the photo: OLFC President – Tsinena Thompson, Presiding Judge at the OK County Juvenile Justice Center – Judge Davis, OLFC Board Member – Jim Larimore, OLFC Co-Founder – Don Nicholson)
Almost every single day in Oklahoma County a child is removed from their home due to neglect or abuse. Often times multiple children are removed from the same home. This is the story of 3 sisters, Marta, Paula & Deena. At ages 10, 7, and 5 these girls were taken into DHS custody due to severe neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse. Marta, age 10, would not make eye contact with anyone. She was dramatically malnourished, approximately 4 feet tall and less than 50 pounds. Paula, age 7, was experiencing organ failure, and when she was placed in shelter she would hoard food under her bed. Deena, at 5 years old, was still in diapers and barely able to talk. All three girls had been raped by two of their mother’s partners – Deena beginning at age 2, Marta at 6 and Paula at 3. Neighbors who were supposedly “caregivers” would physically and sexually abuse the girls. An Oklahoma Lawyers for Children attorney was assigned to their case.
When there are reports of abuse and/or neglect, DHS will remove children from their home. If a child cannot be placed with a suitable relative or in an emergency foster home, sometimes the child has to remain with the DHS worker, often sleeping on a cot in the worker’s office until placement can be located. The Emergency Show Cause Hearing takes place within 2 days of the child being picked up by DHS. At this hearing, the parent, the OLFC attorney, the Assistant District Attorney and the social worker assigned to the case all come before the judge. After the hearing, the parent is often allowed to visit their child for the first time since DHS intervention. The supervised visit takes place just floors above the judge’s chambers in the Oklahoma County Juvenile Justice Center.
At any given time, there are about 2500 children in the foster care system in Oklahoma County. The majority of kids are only 3 – 6 years old. This is a confusing, scary and uncertain time for these young children making it essential for them to have an OLFC attorney with them every step of the way.
In the case of Marta, Paula & Deena, the sisters were placed with a foster family who loved and cared for the girls and wished to adopt them. However, their mother wanted them back, claiming that the men were no longer in her life and that the abuse did not happen while in her care. Previous DHS workers had moved, witnesses were scattered, but OLFC lawyers, private investigators and court reporters traveled out of state to find the evidence needed. Over a month long trial they were able to save the girls from their abusers and prepare the adoption for the foster parents. Marta is now a junior in high school and a soccer star. She is making plans for college. Paula is happy, healthy and loves basketball. Deena is thriving, loves to sing and adores anything with the color yellow.
In this particular case, it was in the best interest of the children to be permanently removed from their home. Lance Phillips, part –time on sight attorney for OLFC says, “If a parent is willing to work and take the appropriate steps to prove they will care for their child, I will help them all day long. If they are not willing to do this then I become their worst enemy.” Statistics show it is best for a child to remain with their birth parents if possible. Unfortunately, not all cases end up this way. OLFC attorneys continue to defend each child until they reach an outcome that ensures their safety, health, and well-being.
There is always a need for attorney volunteers to represent children in legal proceedings. Tsinena Thompson who was introduced to the program as a volunteer says, “Before I got involved with Oklahoma Lawyers for Children it was very hard to understand exactly this need, but as I have worked with the organization, the people, the children, the families, it has probably been the very best thing of my life. I would encourage anybody else to, because the life you change may be your own.” Thompson is currently President of the organization.
OLFC represents children at show cause hearings, serves as the attorney for children in further stages of deprived case proceedings, represents as best-interest attorney for children, and provides other legal services such as: friendly suits, adoptions, guardianships, name changes and more. They also provide non-legal services including: child intake processing, foster home reassessments, a mentorship program for teens and an annual tennis clinic for children in foster care.
Oklahoma Lawyers for Children was founded in 1997 by attorneys Don Nicholson and Kent Myers. Since the organization’s inception, they have never turned down a case. OLFC operates without any tax dollars relying on funding from private grants, fundraisers and the Oklahoma Bar Foundation. Over the past 12 years, the Oklahoma Bar Foundation has awarded over $359,000 to OLFC.
Learn more about OLFC and how to get involved by attending a “Walk in a Child’s Shoes” tour, presented by Oklahoma Lawyers for Children. Tours are held twice a month at the Oklahoma County Juvenile Justice Center in Oklahoma City. To sign up for a tour or to learn more about pro bono opportunities contact, Matt Epting, OLFC’s Director of Development at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (405) 232-4453.
Your support of the Oklahoma Bar Foundation provides funding for non-profit organizations like OLFC. The Fellows Program is the driving force that makes real change happen in the lives of children across our state. Join the Fellows Program by making a yearly contribution of $100 or more. If you are already a Fellow, consider increasing your yearly donation. Sign up online at www.okbarfoundation.org/donate