Proposed bills would ensure high-quality legal representation for children, parents (Capitol Update)

One of the toughest challenges society faces is how best to protect and nurture children who are deprived of the care they deserve from their parents or other caretakers. Children have a long life ahead of them to suffer the consequences of the neglect or abuse they’ve experienced. And they often pass that suffering along to their own children. To stop the cycle, we depend on the work of child welfare staff and our juvenile court system to make decisions about removal, care, placement, and permanency for these children. 

Although our juvenile courts arguably offer the best chance for generational change, they are often the most unsupported part of the judicial system. Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, and Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, have introduced companion bills in the House and Senate to give children and parents caught up in the system their best chance for success. House Bill 1017 by Rep. Lawson and Senate Bill 907 by Sen. Rosino will establish within the Administrative Office of the Courts the “Family Representation and Advocacy Program” that will ensure high-quality legal representation for both children and indigent parents, legal guardians, and Indian custodians in deprived-child cases. Rep. Lawson passed a similar measure in the House last session. 

The court experience can be intimidating or overwhelming for both parents and children. People who are intimidated and overwhelmed often react out of fear, resentment, or despair, which blocks their ability to work through the problems that are damaging the children. The Family Representation and Advocacy Program will provide interdisciplinary teams consisting of specially trained attorneys, along with social workers and peer mentors to help both parents and children meet their goals and get the children on track to the lives they deserve, either in their own family or another permanent family.

The Family Representation and Advocacy Program will be statewide with a central office empowered by the Administrative Office of the Courts to contract with attorneys, social workers, and peer mentors to train and monitor their performance to ensure uniform high-quality representation throughout the state. Having a trusted, knowledgeable team on their side and encouraging them, is the key to either the changed behavior necessary to reintegrate the family or to bring the parents to early realization that the best interests of their child may require a permanent placement elsewhere. In either case, the child is the winner, and the goals of the state and the court have been reached. 

Last session, Rep. Lawson and Sen. Rosino teamed up to create the initiative and obtain the $32.5 million funding that will ultimately eliminate the 13-years-long wait list for 6,000 developmentally disabled Oklahomans waiting for services. It is gratifying to see the two of them now turn their attention to vulnerable, deprived children and their families and work toward breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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