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.