When David Hall was eight-years-old, he was placed into the foster care system. He had suffered from abuse at the hands of his mother and was luckily removed from the situation. During his tenure in foster care, Hall never felt he had an advocate. Now, as an adult, he hopes to change that.
He didn’t realize until years later that the s,tate had in fact give him an attorney for advocate for him during his court appearances. Oklahoma law requires children taken into state custody be given their own attorneys to advocate for their needs and protect their rights in court. Parents have a right to a separate attorney. Access to this required legal representation isn’t equal in courtroom. Qualified attorneys are often not readily available for these children. The Oklahoma Supreme Court created a new task force to look for ways to improve the system.
Hall believes that if he had been given access to an attorney, his life would have ended up much better by being provided better legal services and counseling. These lawyers who serve as advocates for abused children are required to assist in anyway they can such as help provide additional services such as mental health, a service Hall said he needed.
The Oklahoma-based non-profit Oklahoma Lawyers for Children advocates for foster children in the state. CEO, Tsinena Thompson is also a member of the Oklahoma state supreme court task force trying to improve standards for attorneys working child abuse and neglect cases.
Thompson claims many children have complained they never met their attorneys. She calls that inexcusable because state law requires lawyers to meet their under-aged clients before every court hearing.
“You need active well-trained qualified attorneys to get in there, get down in the weeds and do what needs to be done to protect children’s rights and parents’ rights,” Thompson said.
In smaller and more rural areas of the state, lawyers to serve these children are not available. Courts have trouble recruiting lawyers to serve in this role. These lawyers also have to coordinate with the Department of Human Services – the agency responsible for kids in state custody. By communicating with the Department of Human Services, these lawyers can report abuse, mental health, and drug issues to state agencies and law enforcement for further investigations.
Many of the lawyers assigned to these cases are public defenders with large case loads and simply do not have the time or resources to take on additional cases.
Thompson says the new task force is hoping to borrow solutions from other states that will fit Oklahoma.
The state knows they have a shortage of lawyers, but until the task force gets better data, they don’t know how bad the problem is or exactly what the geographic disparities in legal representation are.
The supreme court task force is set up submit their study in late 2020 which will help identify were more lawyers are needed.
Source: State Impact Oklahoma