Children’s legal program endangered

The Tulsa Lawyers for Children program is facing a serious budget shortfall in 2010 and hundreds of children in the county may lose legal help — if additional funding is not found.
But officials stopped short in saying the program would close.
Tulsa Lawyers for Children, a 501c3 organization, that trains lawyers to represent the children as they move through the legal system.
That representation is jeopardized in 2010 because of a funding reduction from the Oklahoma Bar Foundation, the main source of the budget money.
Tulsa Lawyers for Children will receive $34,500 and staff and board members are scrambling to make up the difference — about double — for the next calendar year. Funds are to cover administrative expenses and salaries for three people working either half or three-quarter time during the week.
All non profits have seen funds cut substantially because of the economic downturn, said Anne Sublett, Tulsa Lawyers for Children co-founder and a partner in the Conner & Winters law firm. The OBF reduced funding for all agencies applying for 2010 grants because of the decline in its revenue source.
It is critical that Tulsa Lawyers for Children be maintained and increased so people will be attracted to staff positions when founders and the current staff retire, Sublett said. Even now, staff members put in a substantial amount of pro bono service so children are served.
Tulsa Lawyers for Children trains attorneys to represent neglected and deprived children in court, she said. Many lawyers have civil practices and never go to court.
It was in 1993 that Thomas Crewson, presiding judge of the juvenile court, asked Conner & Winters attorneys to take cases representing children when the public defender had conflicts of interest in the case because they were representing other family members, often parents.
Seven years later, in 2000, the Tulsa County Bar Association wanted to start a program that would recruit and train Tulsa County attorneys to represent abused and neglected children, Sublett said. They saw the work that Conner & Winters was doing.
As a result, Sublett and Judge Doris Fransein co-chaired a special TCBA subcommittee and the Tulsa Lawyers for Children program started.
It was strictly a volunteer program and attorneys were trained in the methodology and special work the juvenile cases required.
These volunteer lawyers assured that children would have effective legal representation when their case went to court.
Sublett found the work personally rewarding because as a non-litigation lawyer, all her cases involved money. It provided another outlet in helping people move through the legal system.
‘‘Representing the kids gave me a real sense of satisfaction and meaning as an attorney,’’ she said. ‘‘Many lawyers have expressed that same feeling.’’
Being an attorney is a hard way to make a living, Sublett said. Those involved in this pro bono work enjoy helping others.
This is not just about doing good work, she said. As lawyers, it is possible to bring all skills to the table to represent children in such a meaningful way. It is a ‘‘fantastic’’ feeling.
Adults often take the old view of a family experience in court, thinking it is not appropriate for children to be represented by lawyers.
Barbara Sears, now executive director, was initially hired on a six-month contract to consolidate volunteer efforts and records that previously had been in Sublett’s office.
In addition to teaching the training classes, as a lawyer, Sears would fill in if there was a problem with the volunteer attorney having a scheduling conflict or not showing up for court. It was her responsibility to see that someone was there representing children in a professional manner.
The court needed a certified person to contact about representing children, Sears said. ‘‘I had a knowledge of the system because I had been the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) executive director for eight years. I had retired and this gave men an opportunity to be an attorney again.’’
During the initial organization process, the board decided the executive director needed to be an attorney. When referrals are received it was possible to take immediate action until a volunteer lawyer could be assigned.
‘‘My experience, and those of the staff, in talking with lawyers in the past and those still volunteering with cases is that children appreciate having someone go to court and understand they do have a voice in the proceedings,’’ Sears said. It is the attorney’s responsibility to tell the court what the child wants.
Some children make it clear they want to go home to be with their parents and siblings. Others, especially if they have been sexually abused, say they never want to return home again, some adding that they never want to see their parents again.
Regardless of what the attorney thinks, they do their best to see their client’s (child’s) wish carried out, she said. But the child also needs to understand they can’t go home until their case is heard by the judge.
Advocate attorneys do not have the heavy case loads that public defenders maintain, Sears said. They have the extra time to visit with their clients that regularly happen in the home. This is extra effort, but it also helps build confidence between the two.
Some foster parents have said that this is the first time they saw the child’s attorney — and it is the first time they ever saw an attorney make a house call, Sears added.
A fall training session has just bee completed and three or four new attorneys have joined the Tulsa Lawyers For Children team, she said. They will replace others who have moved out of state or their personal workloads have become too heavy and they no longer can participate.
Lives of clients and attorneys often become intertwined long after the case ended, Sublett said. Volunteer lawyers frequently receive calls from their youthful clients because they know they have someone in their lives who cares.
Kids come from across the board, from rich to poor, she said. Tulsa Lawyers for Children gets involved once someone has called the state advising of possible abuse and neglect. They come from Tulsa, Broken Arrow, Sand Springs, Collinsville, Glenpool, Jenks, Skiatook and some from the Catoosa area. It is then that DHS gets involved and this organization gets involved after the district attorney files a petition of child abuse and neglect.
To date, there have been 274 kids helped in 2009, she said.
When children are taken from their homes and placed in the custody of the state, they begin a process that will forever change their lives.
They might be returned to their home or wind up in the state’s foster care program. They are entitled to legal representation generally provided through the Tulsa County Public Defender’s office.
Sometimes there is a conflict with that office because attorneys already are assigned to represent another family members.
‘‘You can’t represent a child like you would an adult,’’ Sublett said. Attorneys representing adults can meet them in the courthouse and get them to tell what they know. It takes time to get establish a relationship with a child to get them to open up and say what has happened to them.
That’s not saying the public defender doesn’t do a good job on behalf of youthful clients, Sears said. They just don’t have the time to spend in preparation of the case.
Sears can be contacted at 425-5858 or tulsakidlaw@sbcglobal.net.



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