A fun & fit end to Reunification Month in Olahoma

On June 30th,  the Ladies of Bussett Legal Group, and my nephew, ran the Oklahoma Lawyers for Children (OLFC) Masquerade 5K in Oklahoma City.  Now if you know me at all you know I use the term “run” loosely, I walked real fast. Thankfully the heat was relieved by some rain and we had an enjoyable race dodging puddles and mud.  My Associate Kelly and my nephew Bryce did the real running.   Kelly and Bryce earned actual medals as Bryce was 3rd overall in the race, and 1st in his age division, while Kelly was second for women in her age division.  I was happy to make it across the finish line in under an hour and still able to walk!!! It’s the little victories!

Despite the rain, I was excited to see so many people turn out for the race at the Oklahoma County Juvenile Justice Center.  There were judges, lawyers, social workers, families that OLFC has helped and lots of community members who enjoy running.  All the money raised by the run and other events put on by OLFC go to providing legal representation for abused and neglected children in the Foster Care system.  The Masquerade run continues on OLFC’s theme of the Masquerade Ball which is put on every fall and is the major fundraiser for the organization.  The Ball is a Venetian theme and brings together judges, lawyers, businesses, and families affected by the juvenile justice system for a night of dinner, dancing and a live and silent auction.

The run was part of OLFC’s celebration of National Reunification Month which happens every June.  National Reunification Month began in 2010, when many family organizations joined together to show State justice systems why reunification and growing families through reunification is worthy of celebration.  In 2017, Governor Fallin declared June reunification month in Oklahoma. Family reunification month celebrates the reunification of families in treatment and recovery.  It recognizes the efforts that allow families to safely stay together. The guiding principles of reunification are:

  • Reunification of a child with their family is the preferred outcome & is the best outcome for most children.
  • All children needs the love, care, security ands stability of family unity – including the extended family to provide a foundation for development, maturity and growth.
  • Reunification is a commitment and requires work and an investment of time and resources by not only the family but the court, attorneys, social workers and the entire community.

OLFC’s Masquerade Run was the only Oklahoma specific event I found listed on the American Bar Association’s website for national reunification month.  The website has lots of great links to what is happening in other states in support of reunification as well as providing information on resources and support for families and providers involved in the reunification process. OLFC’s website also has a lot of great information about their other events and the work that the organization does.

On Saturday evening team Bussett Legal Group showed up at the starting line to enjoy this fantastic OLFC block party and run.  It was such an amazing event, even with the super soggy running shoes. The 5K course was mostly flat with a couple rolling hills that offered the runners a bit of a challenge. It rained steadily throughout the race.  The Oklahoma City Police Department did a great job pacing and providing traffic control, and keeping all runners safe. Mark Bravo, a very familiar face in the running community, announced the event.  It is always an honor to have Mark Bravo present at any race, to mentor, coach, and cheer on all of the athletes!

There was a huge block party celebrating families touched by the Juvenile Justice System in Oklahoma. As part of the celebration, some 5K participants were dressed in elaborate customs, complete with masquerade masks.  One brave runner ran the entire 5K with a tail made of peacock feathers.  There was a best costume contest.  There was tons of food, including hot dogs, snow cones, and cotton candy.  Even with the rain, there were a lot of children present for events like the fishing pond, balloon animals, and other games and activities.  A great time was had by all.

As a firm we all decided to volunteer with OLFC last year and have been going through their specific training programs.  For many years we have volunteered with Oklahoma Lawyers for Americas Heroes and advocating for kids in schools with special needs.  As the firm grew to 4 lawyers and other resources have become available to the other organization that we were involved with, it that allowed us to take on more pro bono work in areas of special interest for us.  We have supported and involved with OLFC events for years so deciding as a firm to become trained volunteers with the organization was an easy decision.  Additionally, any cases we take with OLFC are automatically complementary with our practice and allows us to do more than we can with the other organizations that we volunteer with who may not always need assistance in areas we practice in or the clients can be too far away to make it practical for us to give the aid we would like to give.

OLFC is a team of volunteer lawyers and citizen volunteers who provide free legal work for the children who are in DHS protective custody (i.e. the foster care system).  One of the things that I hear most often when talking to people about the Juvenile Justice System is that the children do not have a voice or representation.  OLFC attorneys and volunteers help provide that voice.  OLFC was founded in 1997 after two attorneys visited the Oklahoma County Juvenile Justice Center and a shelter for children in foster care.  In 1998 and 2011, Oklahoma County District Court Judges signed an Order allowing OLFC to be assigned cases for children in the juvenile justice system and in other special circumstances where children need help.

In addition to finding lawyers for these children, OLFC provides vital training for lawyers and volunteers in matters affecting the welfare of children of all ages.  Even though the organization focuses on representing children in Oklahoma County, anyone family, system worker or lawyer can reach out to the organization to access their resources to help kids in our Juvenile Justice System. Lawyers and volunteers for these kids help them with obtaining services like medical, dental, education, mental health, trust creation and exiting the system in addition to guiding them through the court system.

When a child is removed from their home due to allegations of abuse and neglect, the first thing that happens is the District Attorney must file for a temporary restraining order prohibiting the parent from removing the child and a  “Show Cause” hearing is held. OLFC volunteers step in at the Show Cause hearing stage and represent the child through completion of the case and sometimes longer.

The Show Cause hearing has to be held within 2 judicial days of the child being removed from the home.  When children are taken into custody the parents or guardians of the child is required to be provided written notice if the action whenever possible and the notice must contain information about: 1 – the date, time, location and place the child was taken into custody; 2 – the nature of the allegation; 3 – the contact information for local and county law enforcement; 4 the contact information for the DHS child welfare office; 5 – notice of the parent’s right to seek legal counsel. 10A O.S. 1-4-202. At the Show Cause hearing the traditional rules of evidence do not apply so the court can consider hearsay and other evidence that would otherwise be inadmissible at a regular court hearing.  The Court’s role at this hearing is to determine whether there are sufficient facts to demonstrate “there is a reasonable suspicion that the child is in need of immediate protection due to abuse or neglect” of that allow the child to continue in its current home placement “presents and imminent danger to the child.” 10A O.S. 1-4-203.  Oklahoma law gives preference to kinship placement and requires DHS within 30 days of the removal of the children to give exercise due diligence to identify and provide notice to adult relatives of the child in custody including options to participate in the care of the child, requirements to become a foster home and for additional services and support available for children that are placed in the home.  Title 10A of the Oklahoma Statutes and in particular sections 1-4-201 through 1-4-207 address what happens when allegations of abuse or neglect are made, the law on placement of a child, and the obligations of the Department of Human Services.

OLFC attorneys also provide Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) services. In any judicial proceeding wherein the custody or visitation of a minor is contested by any party, the court has the discretion to appoint an attorney as a guardian ad litem.  Under Oklahoma law, the guardian ad litem may be appointed to investigate all matters concerning the best interests of the child.  The GAL will act as an advocate for the child in court.  The best interest of the child includes a number of facts which can be: the desires of the child, the emotional and physical needs of the child, the emotional and physical danger to the child in the child’s present situation, the abilities to parent of the individuals seeking parental custody, the parents’ plans for the child or the agency seeking custody, the stability of the home, the acts or omissions of a parent which perhaps indicate problems with the parent-child relationship.

Free GAL’s are also available in Oklahoma through the Oklahoma Guardian Ad Litem Institute which serves all of Oklahoma and focuses on children in custody and visitation battles exclusively not abuse and neglect cases. Free Advocates for kids in the foster care system are available through the CASA program (Court Appointed Special Advocates).  Every child in a deprived case is entitled to be represented by an attorney or to have a CASA volunteer appointed to help them through the process.

OLFC also has opportunities for non-attorneys and outside the courtroom to volunteer to directly help kids as well.  There is a new Educational GAL program that pairs adults with an education background with kids in foster care or who have been reunified to help the children keep their education on track through the times of instability and change.   There is a mentoring program for teens ages 14-18 who are in foster care.  These kids have a high likelihood of aging out of the system without finding permanence.  They need help learning practical life skills, advancing their education and developing relationships for the adult world.  There are other opportunities in serving on the Associate Board and the committees for all of the events that OLFC puts on each year.  The wonderful ladies at the OLFC office (405) 232-4453 can give specific information on needs and programs. You can also check out their website at www.olfc.org

Children are such a blessing, and I am thankful for organizations like OLFC that are the voices for those who are most effected by the system and who are often the most powerless in it as well.  I am grateful that as a lawyer, a mother and a business owner that my employees care about kids in the system as much as I do and that we all committed to volunteering with this organization and others that help kids in Oklahoma.

 

History in the making? Oklahoma’s 2018 Primary Election

There’s an old saying that you do not discuss politics and religion in polite company because someone is always going to get mad.  However, I think today our lack of discussing politics and religion face to face, and reliance on that 24 hour news cycle has led to a situation of ignorance and intolerance that allows people to feel bold in their opinion behind a keyboard and computer screen.

Since election night 2016, it has felt like we have never left the political news cycle.  Usually we have at least  a few months break between the constant coverage, but the last 1.5 years have been a non-stop cycle of criticism and cynicism.  I too have engaged in my share of speech regarding the last round of elections but I have also settled in to see how things turn out and to listen with the benefit of the doubt.  There is always a winner and a loser in an election but at the end of the day our system of government also depends on those who backed that non-victorious party giving the winner a chance to govern and prove thier merit.

I watched the election results last night with an excitement that I have not had in a long time.  For the first time in my career many of my friends and acquaintances were on ballots and running primary races that would determine if they went on to elections in November. Few people won outright last night, most went on to run off races in August.  Those who were running for judicial seats who did not win outright will have the top 2 candidates go on to the big election in November.  It is exciting to see my law school classmates and personal friends put themselves out there in the process.

This year I am an actual political candidate.  This brings a whole new level of understanding and respect to the political process.  I admire those candidates who I have watched this year who have kept the campaign to the issues at hand rather than attacking the family of the candidates.  I also admire those who do their best to stay out of the muck when it comes to campaigning.  Some of it cannot be avoided when the purpose is to educate people why and how you differ from your opponent but that can still be done in a respectful manner without name calling and low blows.

The education walk out has also had a big impact on the elections this year.  Many teachers decided to run for office and many of the Lady Lawyers in Black who went to the Capitol to fight for education funding decided to run for office.  For me, filing my papers as a candidate while the walk out was going on can be describe as nothing less than an awesome experience.  I have not seen the results yet on how all of those unexpected candidates have come out.  However, I did see one of the Lady Lawyers in black say that  out of the 10 no voters for education that were up for election, 2 were defeated outright, seven will be in a run off in August and one won the primary but has a November election.  The people are speaking and participating and regardless of the outcome that makes my heart happy.

I took my 17 year old daughter Meredith with me to file my declaration of candidacy.  I carried her in my belly during my first year of law school and her older sister was 6 months old when I started law school.  Both girls grew up playing under my desk in law offices.  Meredith’s health issues in particular have shaped my career as much as my success in the courtroom.  Today I run my own law firm that I strive to make family friendly because firms I worked for previously made me feel like I had to choose between being a mother and being a lawyer.  In my mind there was no choice nor was there a need to make a choice, professionals adapt.

Yesterday I took my 4 and 5 year old bonus babies with me to vote.  We stood in line and discussed the difference between the long line (Republicans) and the short line (all the other parties).  We talked about why you voted at a booth where no one could see your vote.  We discussed the issues that I was voting on and why I was voting that way in an age appropriate manner.  On the way to my office because they too go with me and play on the floor by my desk we talked about the history of voting for women and how important voting is to our country.  I took pictures of them loading my ballot into the counting machine and they helped me watch the election results come in last night.  These 4 girls are my biggest inspiration in running and as a candidate I strive for my campaign to be an example for them to be able to talk about political issues.

Oklahoma made some history last night in approving medical marijuana and one of its biggest opponents was defeated in the primary of his race for reelection to his seat.  Make no mistake, that the passage of 788 will effect many areas of the law and that legalization does not resolve all the issues with the use and possession of marijuana.  I expect it will take 12-18 months for the Legislature to work out the laws needed to regulate it.  I don’t know how quickly doctors will be able to write prescriptions.  Nevertheless its use will be an issue in the cases I continue to practice in,  just as the legal use of opioids is an issue –  employment, family, personal  injury, criminal, deprived and delinquent juvenile cases and so on.  Legalization for medical purposes is a step towards decriminalization and criminal justice reform.  While the sky is falling no campaign was often inaccurate in my opinion, there are still issues with  passage that have to be worked out.

Overall Oklahoma, you made me proud last night.  Voters turned out.  People made their voices heard.  Change is coming one way or another to our state and it looks to be positive change to help our criminal justice system, our healthcare system and our school system.  These positive improvements will in turn help bring business to our state as businesses want to bring their company to a state with an educated citizenry, with employable and healthy people and with a positive environment.  So regardless if you voted red, blue or purple (where I put everyone that does not fall solidly into the other categories), thank you for your vote.  Thank you for your time.  Thank you for working to make Oklahoma a great state!!

Part 1 of the DHS Whistle Blower Story

http://www.news9.com/story/36684613/dhs-supervisor-speaks-out-after-10-year-old-girls-death

This is the first is a series of stories about DHS workers who are blowing the whistle on wrong doing within the agency.  Employee Heidi was suspended with pay just 2 days after this story ran and is still suspended with pay as of March 24, 2018, 5 months later while DHS tries to find a reason to discipline or fire her.  Heidi was simply the first of many brave current and former DHS employees who came forward to talk about how DHS is violating the rights of Oklahoman’s and not following the Pinnacle Plan settlement it entered into as a part of a federal court settlement in 2012.

As we approach a state wide walk out on teachers and potentially state employees due to our workers being under paid and our agencies under funded, DHS has a worker that wants to work and protect children and they are paying her to stay at home because she has the courage to speak out against the agency when they are failing children.  Oklahoma – are we a great state or what?

Choose Hope for a Better Future

In life we all have days where we will always remember exactly where we were and exactly what we were doing when an event happened.  For each of us those events will arise out of our own personal experiences – a baby was born, someone died, your best friend got married – and the collective state, national or world experience – the Challenger disaster, the OKC bombing, 9/11 and so one.

One of those days for me was 4/20/1999.  One day after the 4th anniversary of the bombing.  I remember exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing.  I was a 23-year-old new mother, sitting at home on the couch nursing my 4-week-old baby when the news came on and started describing the horrors of Littleton, Colorado.  I remember looking down at the helpless little girl in my arms and wondering about the world she would grow up in.

Fast  foreword almost 19 years to February 14, 2018.  It was a day that seemed like any other day to me as I’m sure it did to you as well. I got up, I went to work, and dealt with the normal chaos that makes up my day.  At some point in the day, I heard about the shooting and the brutal deaths of 17 people.  Unfortunately, a week after this incident as I write this column, I have to look up the statistics about this shooting.  Not because I don’t care and or because it doesn’t affect me, but simply because school shootings have become too common for me to remember the statistics associated with them all.

I cannot tell you how unbelievably sad that makes me feel.  On a day that is supposed to be about celebrating the ones you love; 17 people lost their lives in a senseless act of violence – 3 adults and 14 children gone in the blink of an eye.  I don’t know a single one of them personally, but through the many organizations I’m involved with and friendships, I am within 6 degrees of separation from them and I feel the weight of their loss as I write this article.

Since the latest shooting, I’ve seen the media and social media explode with the blame game – guns caused it, mental health caused it, a bad childhood caused it and on and one and on. At the same time, I have seen everyone have a solution for the problem – gun control, better mental health counseling, parents need to be more involved, etc.

I have no idea what caused it and I do not know the solution.  What I do know is that something has changed in our society, for lack of a better description we have an IT.  We need to figure out what IT is, what caused IT, how to fix IT, and how to keep IT from coming back.

IT seems like the appropriate term because solving the riddle of this new normal reminds me of Stephen King’s novel IT.  In the novel, the reader follows the experiences of 7 children growing up in Maine as they deal with their fears and phobia’s that manifest through a dark force living in the town.  The novel is split into two-time periods – childhood when the children are victimized by the force, and again as adults when they come back to town to defeat the force.

The 7 children are referred to as the “Losers Club” which is made up of: the fat kid, the sick kid, the stuttering kid, the abused kid, the 4-eyed class clown, the black kid, and the Jewish kid.  Each of these children represents stereotype that has often been the target of a bully in society, in the book, in the 80’s when King wrote the book, and the same or similar groups of kids are targeted today.  In the book the children fall victim to Pennywise the Clown as he entices them into his world by playing on their fears and uses their fears to harm them by transforming into their worst fears and killing others in town.

Somehow the 7 kids use their “loserness” to survive Pennywise and make it into adulthood.  But make no mistake the children do not survive without scars and some 25 years later the 7 Losers come back together to save the town when the darkness of IT wakes up again and starts to prey on children in their town again.  The 7 children use their victimhood and life experiences to stop Pennywise for 25 years and the strength of their life experiences and love for each other to defeat him again when he reawakens.  Mr. King is able to tie up all the loose strings in the story and the kids overcome their challenges, beat the bad guy and move forward with bright futures.

In real life things rarely end so nicely.  The kids who are teased for being the “the fat kid, the sick kid, the stuttering kid, the abused kid, the 4-eyed class clown, the black kid, and the Jewish kid” and so on, rarely seem like they are able to band together to defeat the dark force of society that holds them back.  Just like the kids in the books, the kids in real life that are targeted by the bully are often abused, neglected, homeless, sick or victimized in some way that they don’t let others see.  As many times, the bully is also a victim who has found his/her own strength in victimizing others with the hope that they won’t be victimized again.

On days like February 14, 2018, I wish for a story book ending of people banning together for good to overcome evil and to save the day.  But before we can do that we have to identify what the IT is that is affecting our people.  Unfortunately, no one seems to know the cause, only the symptoms of its existence.

Logic tells me that all the things we like to blame are individually not the problem.  A gun is just a hunk of metal until its loaded, pointed at someone and the trigger is pulled. People live with mental illness and survive abuse every day without killing or injuring someone.  Just as others survive being bullied for their appearance, race, religion, income, or handicap, being bullied alone is not what causes the violence.  The problem is something more, something bigger and requires all of us together relying on our collective life experience, hurts, wrongs, misdeeds, injuries and joys to solve.

The only common denominator that I can find in all of these acts of violence, especially school shootings, is the lack of hope.  When we have hope to hang onto we have a reason to believe that things will get better – a new job, friends, family, school, or whatever – the possibility of tomorrow and something better exists.  When we have no hope left all the light is gone.  If you ask me why school shootings happen, it doesn’t matter if the date is 4/20/1999 or 2/14/2018, I think the children have lost hope.  When we find a way to keep hope alive, for the those who hurt the most among us, I believe things will change.

Until then I leave you the words of Maya Angelou – “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Invite one to stay.”  #ChooseHope

Silence Breakers

I finished my article for the the newspaper last night and planned to get up this morning and make a few final touches before submitting it. However when I woke up today and checked my newsfeed I saw that time had announced its person of the year. If you haven’t seen it yet Time chose the “Silence Breakers.”

The silence breakers are the women who spearheaded the #MeTooMovement. these women are actresses, engineers, migrant farm worker’s, television and radio personalities, and a slew of other every day people. Times selection this year shows the power of the grassroots movement and of the voices of many when they overcome the fear of speaking out.

If you’ve been following along with what I’m doing lately you’ve  seen the case that I’m working on against Oklahoma department of human services DHS. I have had people say that these women are attention seekers with an ax to grind against the department. I have read comments from others stating that if the children in their care aren’t safe it’s because they’re not doing their jobs. There have been many other negative comments posted online by those who support the powers that be within DHS. But more importantly there have been more and more people step forward for our version of #Metoo to say DHS has a problem.

The hashtags we have chosen for this movement is #saveOKkids and #OKleadershipcrisis.  If you’re on social media hashtags are a great way to collect and follow stories on a certain subject but more important than the hashtag though is the subject at hand.

Like the woman of the #metoo movement these women have stepped forward with a great potential risk to their careers their finances their reputation and potentially even their personal safety if you believe some of the things I’ve been told. However these women don’t have an ax to grind against the state or DHS. They want to save children which is why they went into this profession to begin with.

If you’ve lived in Oklahoma a long time a few of these names might sound familiar to you & they highlight the ongoing problem with the department of human services.

Ryan Luke – died in kinship placement with grandfather who allowed child to see his allegedly abusive mother. ( 1996)

Shane Coffman – died in home that had been investigated for abuse and his body was found hidden in the freezer outside the mobile home.  ( 1996)

Erika Green aka Precious Doe – died when father was in prison and mother and boyfriend took her and killed her in a drug fueled rampage in 2001.  Her body was discovered decapitated in the woods in Kansas.  The DOC and DHS system failed her. (2001)

Kelsie Smith Briggs – killed by her stepfather in home after DHS investigated abuse allegations involving the family. (2005)

Serenity Deal – died after being allowed to stay with stay with her previously uninvolved father who had his own legal history.  Two DHS workers were criminally prosecuted over the death and one worker who was cleared committed suicide. (2011)

Alysa Horney – died in Kinship foster placement, DHS worker failed to do a proper background check and ignored warning signs. (2013)

Miracle Ellis – died in DHS foster care but DHS claims there was no neglect because Miracle was a “fragile child” due to the conditions of her birth. (2013)

Christopher Seaton – died trying to escape a foster group home and allegedly chased across I-44 by group home workers. (2013)

Andrew Prior – died in Foster care from a head injury.  (2014)

Mame-Neta Attocknie – died after being left in a hot car by foster parents. (2016)

Sha’Quality Cox – died in kinship placement due to asthma attack. (2017)

Joshua – a 2 month old who suffered life ending injuries 24 hours after his foster care placement this fall.  (2017)

A.S.  – died while in DHS custody but in home placement with the mother.  (2017)

These are just a few of the cases that I know about or have received widespread attention.  Ryan Luke’s 1996 case and Kelsie Smith Briggs 2011 case spurred new legislation.  In between in 2008 we had the civil rights lawsuit that lead to the Pinnacle Plan which was supposed to reform the system.  Unfortunately DHS hasn’t improved.  We have seen DHS blame the workers but this is an ongoing problem that is bigger than the workers.  This is a problem that goes all the way up to leadership in the agency.  There is routine turnover in the lower ranks due to the demands of the job, but the constant is leadership.

Looking back to the Silence Breakers who have stepped out to start a movement that has changed the face of sexual harassment in the US this year it proves that while sometimes one voice isn’t heard, that one voice can be the catalyst to set off more voices to be heard.  Soon we don’t hear just one victim or one worker saying that change needs to occur, rather we hear a cacophony of voices calling out about the problems in our society.  Whether its sexual harassment in the workplace, the election of alleged sexual predators, abuse of children or some other equally heinous allegation, its the courage of the silence breakers that is truly remarkable.

The Silence Breakers have the ability to make change.  The Silence Breakers are being the change they want to see.  The Silence Breakers for sexual harassment have toppled some of the biggest names in entertainment, politics, and business.

The Oklahoma DHS Silence Breakers are working to do the same to save children.   The Oklahoma Silence Breakers are more than 3 woman in Oklahoma County.  This is more than a complaint about bosses or working conditions.  The Oklahoma Silence Breakers are current and former workers from all over the state, foster parents, biological parents, adoptive parents, and kids who have been through the system who are stepping forward to say the system is broken, children are dying, workers are ill prepared and parents are overwhelmed.  The DHS Silence Breakers are not waging a personal attack, they are seeking to protect children, help workers and empower parents.  DHS has a leadership crisis, kids are dying and people aren’t willing to stay silent anymore.

Thank you to the Time Silence Breakers in the #metoo movement for stepping forth and stepping out to help break the silence all over.  I truly think you are the people of the year too.

Is there a leadership crisis in Oklahoma?

November 1 is the time when new laws in Oklahoma traditionally take effect.  This year as we approach this date we have a legislature in special session because there is no budget.   We’ve seen news reporting about the budget crisis, shortfalls in funding to the state, and the planned decrease in services. 

 Not long ago, it was announced that there would be deep cuts in services to the Department of Human Services and the Department of Mental Health.  At one point it was reported that a budget deal could be reached if parties would agree to a statewide ban on abortion.  Politics of abortion aside, such a law is clearly unconstitutional under the existing laws of the United States.  The Supreme Court has spoken on this issue and the states cannot ban abortion. Period.  It can be limited but it cannot be banned.   I do not understand why our government must stall the process of governing to insist on passing bills that those in charge know from the outset will fail.  Just yesterday the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay on a law aimed at drunk driving reform because there are constitutional challenges to the law. 

 The last few weeks the news has been full of reports on the failings of DHS.  A foster baby died from what is likely shaken baby syndrome. The baby was shaken just a day after being placed in the foster family’s care.  A foster mother stands accused of beating and starving four children.  On October 23, 2017 a story ran in the Oklahoman regarding a child who died after DHS closed its investigation. One of the DHS employees in the investigation then spoke out to the media afterwards explaining that DHS did not tell the entire story. 

 Budgets are down.  Agencies are understaffed and overworked.  In 2008 a civil rights lawsuit was filed against DHS that resulted in the creation of a plan of reform in DHS.  That document is called the Pinnacle Plan.  The purpose was to fix problems in the foster care system.  Except the Pinnacle Plan is not being followed.  

 DHS in Oklahoma County alone has about 1/5 of the staff that it needs to investigate child welfare claims.  Child service workers are only supposed to have 12 cases per worker.  I know of one team that has only 3 of the 5 child welfare worker slots filled.  Pursuant to the Pinnacle Plan that team can only work 36 investigations.  Yet that team has over 100 active cases assigned to it.  That is approximately 3 times the allowed number of cases per worker. This is the “team” that was disciplined for the death of a child after DHS closed its investigation.  This is the team that was disciplined after the supervisor said we need to take these kids into protective custody.  This is the team where the District Director vetoed the decision of the workers in the filed to protect the children.  This is the team that was accused of failing children by DHS but the leaders at DHS did not shoulder any of the blame or the failing  Was this a failure of the team in the field or the leader who pushed to close cases?  Oklahomans need to decide. 

 Leadership at DHS has been advised that the DHS child protective workers overworked and underpaid.  Leadership has been advised that there are workers who are developing drug and alcohol problems as a result of the extreme stress that they are placed under in trying to help the families who need help protecting their kids.  Recently a DHS worker was arrested for showing up on a call under the influence.  The response from Leadership was to refer to the employee assistance program.  I don’t see this as leadership at a key agency charged with protecting the most vulnerable.  I also see Leadership passing the buck and disciplining those who speak out against them for their failings instead of stepping up and appreciating the criticism. 

We have a crisis in Oklahoma.  There is without a doubt a budget crisis.  Tax revenue is down and we give cut after cut in taxes to corporations but raise dollars on the backs of our hard working citizens.  But even more than a budget crisis in Oklahoma, is a Leadership crisis in Oklahoma. 

 We have elected and appointed officials who do not represent the interests of their constituents.  We have elected and appointed officials who push their own agenda rather than developing law that we know will stand up to constitutional challenges. When did we become a society so concerned with placating everyone that we get nothing done?  

 Regardless of which side of the political aisle we are sitting on, our state needs Leadership that will stand up and protect our citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones in society.   While the Legislature remains in special session trying to resolve the latest budget problem, I encourage all Oklahomans to contact their State Senator or Representative to make your voice heard on the issues that affect you and to be the change you want to see in the system.

 Now more than ever is the time for our elected leaders to stand up and LEAD for what is right, what is fair and what is just. Now is the time for the politicians to remember that they represent people.  People like you and me who raise children, pay taxes, own businesses and want to see the best in our society.  

My eyes! Do we really need to be warned not to stare directly into the solar eclipse?

For the last several weeks everywhere I’ve looked I’ve seen advertisements and information about the phenomenal “once in a lifetime” eclipse on August 21, 2017.  Special glasses were sold, people booked trips to far away locations that would provide excellent views of the event, there were eclipse parties, and really no end to the eclipse madness.  So that made me wonder how I could tie the eclipse into the law.  My answer was right there on Facebook – eclipse glasses!!!!

One thing that was discussed everywhere was the potential for retina damage from looking into the sun during the eclipse.  I won’t pretend to understand how my retinas were going to be anymore damaged from looking at the sun today as opposed to any other day in August where it feels like the skin is going to melt smooth off my body, but apparently there’s something to this theory.

Anyway, eclipse glasses were everywhere!!!! The purpose of eclipse glasses is to allow the wearer to stare into the sky at the sun and the moon as they pass on another in this “once in a lifetime event” (which incidentally will occur in about 7 years in North America and 2 years in South America). So I thought about eclipse glasses as a product and if they failed who could I sue and for what if I went blind after staring into the solar eclipse.

This kind of claim is known as a “product’s liability” claim and is based on the notion that anyone in the chain of distribution of a product from component part manufacturer to final distributor can be liable for the harm caused by a defective product.  Under Oklahoma law, a product is defective when it is not reasonably fit for the ordinary purposes for which such products are intended or may reasonably be expected to be used. A product can be defective due to the way it is designed, manufactured or based upon the way the consumer is warned about its use.

A design defect is inherent in the design of the product and the defect cannot be removed unless the product is redesigned in some manner.   The classic example would be a power saw designed without a proper finger guard. If there is a design defect every model of the product that is designed in that way is defective regardless of whether it has injured someone yet. This was the problem with the Ford Pinto with the exploding gas tank.

A manufacturing defect occurs when the product is otherwise properly designed, but there is an error in the manufacturing process that causes the product to become unreasonably dangerous.  A good example of this is an exposed sharp edge that according to the design should be covered in a way that would protect the consumer from injury, but do to an occurrence in the manufacturing process did not properly get covered up.

A warning defect occurs when the product when used in its ordinary and foreseeable manner does not have ordinary or reasonable instructions about its dangerous character and the risk of harm associated with the product is not one that an ordinary user would reasonably expect. Warnings are not required when the danger is obvious to an ordinary user from the nature of the product or information known to the user.  This kind of defect is the reason why your hairdryer says don’t use this product while taking a bath.

Knowing all of this, its unlikely that I could sue anyone if I went blind wearing my eclipse glasses due to a warning defect, because the ordinary user should know that you don’t look directly into the sun for long periods of time, especially during an eclipse.  The eclipse glasses could have a design defect if the design of the glasses did not adequately consider the amount of filtration necessary to protect an individual’s eyes for the expected length of time while looking into the eclipse.  Additionally, the glasses could have a manufacturing defect, if the manufacturer determined the appropriate rate of filtration in the design but if in the manufacture a substandard component lens was used that did not provide the appropriate level of filtration on a specific production of the glasses.

The moral of the story is if you stared into the sun to experience this remarkable phenomenon of nature on August 21, 2017, keep your receipt and glasses. That way if your doctor tells you that your retinas have been burned you can call a lawyer to discuss whether your glasses had a flawed design, if they were poorly manufactured or if it would have been better to just listen to your grade school teacher about not looking directly at the sun during an eclipse.

Free Speech & Personal Freedom – Your rights end where my rights begin.

One of my favorite high school teachers used to say “Your rights end where my nose begins.” At 16 I didn’t quite appreciate the depth of that statement, but I found myself recalling it, not for the first time since Ms. Fitzer said it, after the events in Charlottesville VA this last weekend. In her own way, Ms. Fitzer and her business law class at Piedmont OK helped put me on the path for the person and lawyer I am today, passionate about civil rights and protecting an individual’s right to express their views regardless of whether I agree with the opinion.

Before I moved to the small town of Piedmont, Oklahoma at age 15, I lived in St. Louis.  I grew up in an area known as North County which is the same  area of St. Louis County where Ferguson, Mo is located.  Ferguson was in the world news a few years ago when a white police officer shot Michael Brown after a convenience store robbery. This shooting seemed to be a tipping point in race relations and police interaction.

Where I lived in St. Louis was one of the older suburbs of the city, where the families started moving post World War II to escape city life.  I lived in an older home built in the early 50’s and my school and neighborhoods were very blue collar.  Where I lived in North County there was a fairly even mix of white and black kids, with a few kids of other races or nationalities and we all got along.  We had your typical school hierarchy of kids but it was not based on the color of skin or the notion that one of us was better than the other due our race. But this has changed in the last 25 years and in this area society has developed a feeling of black vs. white. This saddens me.

I never really thought about racism much until I transferred to a school in West County for my Freshman year of high school.  St. Louis was still under desegregation orders at that time in the 90’s and kids from the inner city were bussed into the predominately white schools in West County and South County to ensure integration was occurring.  West County and South County were what I heard people refer to as “white flight” areas.  That was another term I didn’t understand for a while.   Basically I now understand it to mean that at that time, as families, predominately black and other minority families, began to move out of the city and into the suburbs in the quest for home ownership and better schools for their children, more affluent white families were moving to other more exclusive areas of the city where the price of real estate was higher and the schools were better.   I attended high school for approximately 6 months in West County and it was my first real look at racism up close as there was a distinct difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ at that school.

But ironically it was the least diverse school that I ever attended, that really started making me think about the line of demarcation between my rights and the rights of someone else. I’m not known as a woman who keeps her thoughts and opinions to herself. I like to discuss topics that are tough and controversial.  I like to learn why people hold certain beliefs and what makes them tick.  In having this discussion I had to learn though to respect the rights of others to have differing opinions than mine.  I had to learn to be willing to listen to why they felt a certain way and to explain why I believed the way that I did.  I had to learn how to be persuasive in my thinking and argument in a way to respect that my right to my opinion ended where their right to their own opinion began.

The US Constitution gives us the freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion.  However, it doesn’t give us the right to impose our beliefs on someone else.  The Constitution guarantees that we have a right to protest and state our views about the state of society or the law, those rights are not unlimited.  The government has the right to restrict our constitutionally protected rights bases on the time, place and manner in which the right is being exercised.  In regard to speech the lower the value of the speech, the easier it is for the government to regulate or restrict.  For example speech that would be deemed to be “obscenity” or “fighting word” is subject to more governmental control than say high valued speech like political speech which the government must have a compelling  interest to regulate.  The time place and manner restrictions must be content neutral, be narrowly drawn, serve a significant government interest, and leave open alternative channels of communication. I cannot walk into a crowded theater and yell “fire” because it endangers others. You can protest but you can’t protest by setting things on fire or using violence. You can print whatever you want in the paper and distribute it, but if its untrue then your subject to civil and/or criminal penalties.

So what does all of that mean for what happened in Charlottesville?  Well regardless of whether we agree their speech, the alt-right supporters had a right to gather and protest on Saturday.  They had a right to peacefully assemble and protest the movement of the statue of Robert E. Lee. They had a right to say that removing it was an attempt to revise history.  They even have a right to engage in hate speech even if their speech arguably violates the civil rights of other people under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.  They did not have a right to run people down with cars. They did not have a right to threaten violence.  They did not have a right to incite violence.

Likewise the protesters who showed up to demonstrate against the alt-right supporters have the same rights of speech and assembly. They have a right to say that the beliefs constitute Nazi propaganda, support the suppression of women and minorities and that the statue supports historical racism.  They did not have a right to incite violence either.

Clothing, including your accessories and appearance is also a form of speech.  Going to a demonstration that protests the removal of a statue carrying guns and torches, while wearing swastikas, riot gear and the presidential campaign slogan makes a statement without words. It makes a statement that they are prepared to support their speech with violence and that they feel they have the support of those in power. It appears to be an incitement to violence. The alt-right supporters rights to protest the removal of the statue ended where the rights of the counter-protesters began and vice versa.

The anti-hate protesters had the right to say your beliefs are the same kind that  caused world war II or that there is no data to prove that one race is superior to another. The anti-hate supporters also had a right to reasonable self-defense when they felt threatened. Unfortunately its hard to know where the line is between speech, inciting one to violence and self-defense from real or perceived violence before a car comes plowing through a group of protesters.

At some point the speech & protest evolved into violence.  I wasn’t there I can’t say who  threw the first proverbial punch or what one event set it over the line from peaceful protest to violent riot.  Both sides have a constitutional right to have their speech heard and to make their protest whether I agree with it or not.  Part of the issue we face now is that we have the benefit of viewing the world with post-World War II glasses. We wonder how someone like Hitler ever came to power to enact the atrocities that he did. This is beneficial because we are always on the look out to prevent that kind of atrocity from happening again. But its also a hindrance because its easy to escalate to violence and suppress speech when it disagrees with our own opinion and views on these subjects.

At the end of the day, I think Nelson Mandela summoned up our freedom best when he said “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”  In our polarized world we have to find a way to get along. To get past hate and differences and enhance each other.

What do Independence Day, the Constitution and Julius Caesar have in common?

Somewhere around 5th or 6th grade, I was required to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution.  A few years later, a high school English teacher required me to learn and recite lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, being the rebel that I was I chose an entirely different passage than what the majority of the class picked. Now 30 years later I can still recite both passages and it occurs to me on this rainy Independence Day that the preamble and the passage from Shakespeare had a lot in common, though I doubt I knew it then, and that both said a lot about who I would become.

The words from the Preamble, written in 1787, some 11 years after we declared our independence from the King of England, inspired and influenced me in a way I wouldn’t understand for a long time:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Preamble is the introduction to the principles and purpose of the Constitution. It is not a part of the Constitution and grants no powers, but has been viewed as evidence of what the Founding Fathers of our Country wanted to achieve with this document that has ruled us for some 230 years since it was drafted. The purpose according to the words was to form a “more perfect” union that provides for the good of all of our people of the United States. The Preamble doesn’t guarantee perfection, as we all know perfection is unattainable by man, but it does strive to create a government that continues to be better, to provide for all, to guarantee our continuance as a society, to defend us in our time of need, and secure our liberties.

There is much debate in constitutional law about whether the words in the Constitution should be interpreted to mean the same as what they meant in 1787 when our Founding Fathers met to draft it or if they were to change with society.  As a student and practitioner of the law, I believe that the Founding Father’s knew and expected the interpretation of their historic document to grow over time.  These men knew that society changed and developed and that for government to continue to exist it had to be willing to change with it.  This was part of the break away from England, the King did not adapt his rule to the changes occurring within the colonies so the colonies adapted the rule of law for him and gave birth to a new nation.

With this in mind, I think about the passage I chose from Julius Caesar. It is in Act 1, Scene 1, and set in the streets of Rome when the people are waiting for Caesar to come through the city and it sets the theme for the play.:

“You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things,O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome, Knew you not Pompey?…..”

This passage is about the fickle nature of the people to switch their support from one leader to the next  over simple things.  The speaker is reminding the people about the last celebration for the former leader when they backed him wholeheartedly but now they are flooding the streets cheering for the new leader.  This seems to be the nature of our political society today, constantly changing support from one dynamic figure to the next based on what they say rather than what they do.  I find this to be interesting given another common cliche  “actions speak louder than words” often repeated in life. We vote, electing and reelecting leaders, who’s accomplishments we celebrate and who’s words before the election promise one thing but their actions post election show the words mean little.

I fear we have become the citizens in Julius Caesar, changing our loyalty from one dynamic leader to the next. Relying on words instead of looking to their actions.  Placing our trust in “parties” and “platforms” rather than in the elected people who regardless of party show a demonstrated practice of acting in their own self interest rather than in the interest of our citizenry. I’ve heard repeatedly that no one was happy with the candidates offered by the major parties in our 2016 election, yet they were the ones chosen by our political process, one of the best, if not the best in the world, to represent us, to lead us, and to speak for us.

In a time when our country is divided, the words of our Preamble, the Declaration of Independence and even the Constitution itself to remind us of the founding principles of this country.  The principles that were, are, and will continue to be important enough for people to fight and die for to ensure that we continue as the greatest nation in the world.

We The People….need to be the change that we want to see in our community, in our state and in our country. We The People….like we were in 1776 and in 1787 are the future and the voice of our times. We The People….need to make our voices heard  and votes count to direct, steer, and guide the future of our country.  We The People….need to decide if we are Romans cheering the next dynamic leader who conquers those who are weaker or if we are the Founding Father’s giving birth to and  raising the greatest nation in the world to provide for All the People.

Placing your cards on the table in a family law case

Some weeks when I sit down to write this column its very easy. I write about a subject that I’m dealing with in my practice, that I’m asked about all time or that is in the news. But during other weeks it’s a struggle to find something that I think the readers might find interesting in this crazy world that I live in.

Over the weekend I read an article about the high suicide rate among lawyers and I found myself wondering what it is I love about what I do and why so many lawyers are unhappy.  There are days when I come home when I think I would literally rather dig ditches under the high Oklahoma August sun than step foot in my office again. On the flip side, there are days when I can’t wait to get up and go to court because I live for the thrill of the hunt. Today was not a thrill of the hunt kind of day, but Monday seldom is for me anyway.

I started my day in family court.  Opposing counsel was late due to a scheduling problem, my client was nervous and edgy and we were at the end of the docket.

Opposing counsel and I had never worked together on a case before and he was a new lawyer so we sat and talked for a while and got to know each other in addition to talking about the case.  In doing this I told him a little about my philosophy about family law. It’s a philosophy that is born out of being a lawyer, having been the child of divorced parents with half siblings and step parents, going through a divorce myself and  parenting children through divorce and remarriage.

Each of those experiences has helped enrich my practice and expand my point of view in and out of the court room.  It has also helped my professional happiness and stress level.  I also told this young lawyer that while clients would come and go, we would be seeing each other again, that the client’s problems were not our problems and when we left court we should be able to shake hands, have lunch and tell war stories.

Some client’s do not like it when the lawyers are friendly with one another, they want a blood bath at all times but that rarely works out for anyone.  The law is a field where we are paid to fight and we are evaluated by the size of our kill.  But in a family law situation the unintentional “kill” is often the children and it is incumbent upon the lawyers to protect the children when the parents lack the willingness or the ability to put the children’s needs first.

The young lawyer was a little surprised when I told him my philosophy about family law, I could read it in his face.  At the same time, something very interesting happened.  I watched him soften a little too, not with weakness but with humanity and trust, that I was not interested in taking a child away from a parent but in making sure that the needs were being met in the best way possible.

Suddenly the other lawyer showed a willingness to listen to me about why I was proposing certain things for this family and I walked away from the Court hearing getting virtually everything my client wanted and I believed were best for the children in terms of visitation, support and the like.  I did not attack his client, I did not say all the awful things I could have said about his client, I did not tear apart the other parent in the many possible ways that I had the ammunition to do.  Instead of focusing on the negative aspect of the parents, I focused on the positive aspects of the children and how to best meet those needs. In that case it was clear that one parent better filled those roles and we set goals for the other parent to meet so that the child did not suffer.

Sometimes the scorched earth litigation tactic, even in family law,  is appropriate, but most of the time, just taking the time for cooler heads to prevail and discuss what it is that you want and why is all that is necessary for things to work out.

I think lawyers and litigants would be a lot happier in the process if we were encouraged more to be real about the process and to lay our cards on the table about what we think.  Since I’ve started doing that I’ve been amazed at the difference I’ve seen in my practice and the response from opposing counsel in general just like the response I got today.  The court and opposing counsel have come to know that I believe and advocate strongly for both parents to be involved in a child’s life.  I believe children need a mother and a father who are involved on a regular basis.  Because this is the position I always take, I also believe when I take a different position the Court and opposing counsel notice and give my reasons more creditability because they know regardless of whether I have mom or dad I want to see both parents involved with the kids and If I’m making a recommendation for someone to have less involvement that must mean I have serious concerns.

Finding ways for attorneys to reach common ground and work for the greater good for the clients is better than a “win” for the particular attorney and should be our overall goal in family law.  At the end of the day, I want to make sure that my client’s family’s needs are met more than I want to make sure that I have a verified “W” in my win/loss column because a satisfied client is always a win and I am then always a happy lawyer.