News clip shows only part of story

A television news clip about a meth lab bust shows adults being arrested and children placed in protective custody.
The general public breathes a sigh of relief. The children are safe.
What the public doesn’t understand is children are the unseen victims in the scenario.
Nor do they know that state law requires that a hearing must be held within 24 hours or two judicial days from the time that police remove them from their home — or that they are entitled to legal representation.
That’s why the Shelter Visitation and Show Cause Hearing Project was organized in June 2008, according to Mary Bullock, project coordinator. More than 1,060 children have been seen in 17 months.
Pro bono attorneys meet with the children and serve as guardian ad litem at the initial case hearing. This occurs before the case is assigned in any court proceedings. University of Tulsa College of Law students also assist, working under the supervision of attorneys.
Maybe the kids are safe, but they are concerned about their parents because they often don’t understand why the police have taken them out of their home and placed in the Laura Dester Center, Bullock said. They don’t know if they will go home soon or go to a foster home.
Pro bono lawyer volunteers go to the center to talk with the children, according to Barbara Sears, Tulsa Lawyers for Children executive director. Recently, she talked with a 12-year-old girl and her sister, to give them an idea why they were at the shelter.
‘‘As I was leaving the 12-year-old told me she appreciated being told what was happening,’’ she said. Another girl asked her attorney to tell the police that ‘‘mommy didn’t know what was happening in the garage.’’
Volunteers find out what the children want and what they are concerned about, she said. They try to help them understand why they have been taken from their home and family.
Ad litem volunteers inform the court about the wishes of the children, she said. Children do not attend the hearing.
Some wonder why the shelter staff doesn’t attend to the children’s legal needs, said Anne Sublett, co-founder of Tulsa Lawyers for Children and board president. Actually, the Laura Dester staff is disconnected with the court process. They are getting clothes for the kids, getting physical exams as needed and providing food and shelter.
‘‘We are the go-between for the kids and court,’’ she said. ‘‘DHS workers are doing a good job, but they have ‘umpteen’ cases to handle. Our role is focusing on the importance of the child’s well-being. We are the go-between for the children and the court.’’
The attorney is the visible person spending one-on-one time with the children, Sublett said. This is especially important for all children, especially those under 10 to have someone to talk with. It’s a time when they are reassured that mom and dad are OK.
Input from the children give a jump-start on cases, Sears said.
A group of 28 very committed attorneys are the center of the program, Bullock said. Their efforts have a lot of credibility with judges and DHS. Kids know what is going on.
The Shelter Visitation program is ‘‘fantastic,’’ Sublett said. That is because a group of lawyers is dedicating time and effort to make it work.
Hopefully, the volunteer law students will continue to be part of the program after they graduate, she said.

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