An interim study requested by Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, and Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, was held in the House Judiciary-Civil Committee last week and went in a slightly different direction than I expected. The study request indicated it would examine the effects of the government on families within our state. Father’s rights and responsibilities would be examined to ensure fathers are receiving the same rights to their children as mothers. And the Pinnacle Plan would be reviewed to see if it is helping the children of Oklahoma. The requestors also said they would examine laws that could be made alongside the Pinnacle Plan to improve the foster care system.
I expected the study to look at how parents might be being crowded out of children’s lives and their parental influence overcome by an overbearing government. Instead, the study focused on how to improve the system to get parental rights terminated so children will become eligible for a new, permanent home and out-of-state custody. Once a child is removed from their home for either neglect or abuse, both federal and state law have timelines for when the child should become eligible for permanent placement. The study found these timelines are not often being met and looked for the obstacles keeping that from happening.
One obstacle is that Oklahoma is one of three states in which a parent accused or found to have neglected or abused their child has the right to demand a jury trial in an action to terminate their rights.There was testimony in the committee that children sometimes remain in limbo for months, even years, after the petition to terminate parental rights has been filed. District attorneys must prosecute these cases, but often criminal cases take precedent. Those who testified noted that jury trials do not necessarily make sense in parental rights termination cases. Those involved in the cases — attorneys, judges, and caseworkers — receive special training but then jurors, without the benefit of training, make the final decision.
Another obstacle to permanency is lack of qualified attorneys to represent children. Payment to attorneys by the court is low, and many attorneys are not familiar with juvenile court. Those who do take cases are overloaded and unable to give cases the time ideally required. There was also an indication that some Oklahoma Department of Human Services staff are focused on family reunification at the expense of the children’s well-being, causing delays in permanency. But, at the same time, it was recognized that any discussion related to children must acknowledge there is great harm done by separating a child from its family.
Those interested in this issue will want to also watch for an interim study requested by Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, that will be held sometime in October. Sen. Rosino was Senate author last session of House Bill 3468 by Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa. The bill was intended to ensure uniform and high-quality legal representation for indigent parents, legal guardians, and custodians in deprived child actions brought by the state. The bill passed the House 90-0 but was held up in the Senate Judiciary Committee for further study. The bill will likely include provisions for high quality representation for both parents and children when it is re-introduced, both of which have been found to be extremely important in good outcomes for children.