Oklahoma Lawyers for Children: Bringing Hope to the Courtroom - MetroFamily Magazine
MetroFamily Magazine

Where OKC parents find fun & resources

Oklahoma Lawyers for Children: Bringing Hope to the Courtroom

by Brooke Barnett

Reading Time: 5 minutes 

Tsinena Bruno-Thompson, president and CEO of Oklahoma Lawyers for Children (OLFC) says that there is a common misconception when it comes to the protection of children in Oklahoma’s legal system—and this misconception is at the very heart of why her organization exists.

“In cases of deprived children, the State’s client is the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS), the agency charged with the responsibility of caring for children in its custody. The State is bound by what the representatives do or fail to do. Sometimes, the State cannot pursue a particular course of action because DHS cannot meet the burden of proof. That’s where having an independent attorney for the child is particularly important,” Thompson explains. “The attorney for the child can pursue avenues that the State may not be able to pursue. OLFC was created to meet this need and assist the very capable—but overburdened—Juvenile Public Defender’s office by providing specially trained and qualified volunteer attorneys. This is difficult, difficult work, but without a shadow of a doubt, it is the best work I have ever done in my life.”

Representing the Children

Founded in 1997, OLFC is an organization of qualified pro bono attorneys that represents children in the Juvenile Division of the Oklahoma County District Court. OLFC’s attorneys donate their time to ensure that the legal representation of abused, neglected and deprived children in Oklahoma County is not just adequate, but excellent. Providing in-depth legal services to more than 3,600 children each year, OLFC currently has more the 700 volunteer attorneys and over 400 non-lawyer volunteers.

OLFC began in 1997, when two local attorneys visited the Oklahoma County Juvenile Justice Center and were shocked at the large number of child victims existing in an ill-equipped, overburdened system. The pair began recruiting help from their colleagues and, by the following year, the Oklahoma County District Court judges signed an order allowing OLFC to be assigned cases directly from the Juvenile Public Defender’s office.

OLFC Today

Thompson explains that when children enter OKDHS custody due to abuse, neglect or other situations, these children are required by state statute to have their own legal representation. “This representation has to come from the Juvenile Division of the Public Defender’s office or from OLFC. You cannot hire a private attorney to represent a child in OKDHS care,” she says. “And there are only five juvenile attorneys in the Public Defenders office to deal over with over 8,000 kids in OKDHS care. So, our attorneys play a crucial role.”

Today, OLFC’s volunteer attorneys provide Guardian Ad Litem (court-appointed representatives for minors) services; assist with obtaining medical, dental, educational and mental health services for children in the legal system; provide information and assistance with special needs and trusts and ultimately help prepare children who “age out” of the system for life outside of foster care.

OLFC provides in-depth training in juvenile law and trial techniques for volunteer litigators, as well as training on various factors affecting the welfare of children of all ages. “We are the only ones who can object to the change of placement or legally assert that a placement should not be changed,” Thompson notes. “As far as I know, we are the only organization in the nation that does this on a completely pro bono basis.”

OLFC attorneys protect the rights of every child at every emergency “show cause” hearing in Oklahoma County, which are held within two judicial days after a child comes to OKDHS care. “We represent every single child that is picked up and put in OKDHS custody and those hearings are held five days a week, 52 weeks a year.” Thompson says that the number of attorney volunteers has doubled in the last three years and estimates that OLFC volunteers have saved the State of Oklahoma over $3.4 million dollars each year through volunteer legal contributions. “We’ve also had some independent studies conducted to assess the results we bring,” she adds. “Children represented by OLFC volunteers spend an average of 90 days less time in foster care and are 54 percent better off, educationally-speaking.”

“The goal of the system is to achieve permanency for the kids,” Thompson explains. “Either through reunification with biological parents, through guardianship with another adult, or in a situation where parental rights are terminated and child is available for adoption.”

Outside the Courtroom

OLFC’s influence extends further than just the courtroom. “We also have more than 400 volunteers who act as first responders,” Thompson adds. “They meet with children within the first 24 hours, to make sure they have what they need and to gather additional information for the volunteer attorney.” Non-attorney volunteers also provide legal support services, such as court reporting, private investigating, home studies for potential foster families and other services to help make sure the children’s interests are protected.

Non-attorney volunteers also provide mentorship to children who are preparing to leave the foster care system. “Kids who are close to aging out of foster care have to set goals of what they would like to achieve by the time they leave the system,” Thompson explains. “Our mentor/mentee system works with the child on their specific transitional living plan to help them achieve their goals.”

Partnering with the Redbud Classic

As the only full-time attorney and one of only two paid staff members, Thompson emphasizes the importance of the organization’s association with the 2013 Red Bud Classic. “We are not a United Way agency, and lawyers are not always incredibly popular when out soliciting funds,” she jokes. “We sometimes don’t qualify for grants or funding opportunities available to other organizations and we must raise a lot of our own funds independently. Being associated with the Redbud is huge for us, because what we do isn’t a lawyer’s responsibility; it’s really a community responsibly. We hope it will bring more awareness for the issues our children face and more community support.”

Making a Difference

Interested in supporting the work of OLFC? The organization offers an annual tennis tournament, as well as an Evening of Hope: Chips for Children event each September, allowing the public to support OLFC’s important work. In addition, OLFC seeks sponsors for a weeklong tennis camp that is offered for free for all children in foster care in the OKC metro.

Those interested in volunteering with OLFC can schedule a volunteer interview in order to be matched with a program. All volunteers must pass a background screening. For attorneys, OLFC provides free continuing legal education trainings twice per year, meeting all the state mandated training requirements.

“I was a litigator for a long time before coming to OLFC,” Thompson concludes. “I wish I could say it is always happy work—it’s not—but I have never done more important work in my professional life. I get to see firsthand everyday the difference we make in these children’s lives.”

For more information on OLFC, call 405-232-4453 or visit www.oklahomalawyersforchildren.camp9.org.

31st Annual Redbud Classic

The 31st Annual Redbud Classic will be held April 6–7, continuing its tradition of fitness, fun and philanthropy. The 2013 Redbud Classic events include 5K and 10K runs, a 5K wheelchair event, a 2 mile walk, baby stroller derby and one mile children’s run plus 10-, 33- and 50-mile bike tours. The biking events and the children’s run will be held Saturday, April 6, while the running and walking events are scheduled for Sunday, April 7. Annually, 6,500 athletes participate in the Redbud events, not including the nearly 800 children who run in the free one-mile children’s run.

Participants can register online at www.redbud.org or in person at the Redbud office (1203 Sherwood Lane, open 10:00am–6:00pm daily from March 28–April 6). Discounted early-bird registration fees (before April 1) are available, but participants may sign up for events at the event.

In addition to providing fitness events for the entire family, the Redbud promotes philanthropy by making a donation to a local non-profit agency and the 2013 beneficiary is Oklahoma Lawyers for Children. “We look for an organization where we can have a big financial impact and really help their cause,” said Suzanne Chew, public relations coordinator for the Redbud Classic. “We felt like OLFC fit that completely. Our donation will help them get more attorneys involved and be the voice for these children in need. Each child deserves excellent legal representation and there is no other way for them to get it, other than OLFC.”

For complete event details including start times, course maps, and registration information, visit www.redbud.org.

Brooke Barnett is the Assistant Editor and Online Content Manager of MetroFamily Magazine.

more stories

Verified by MonsterInsights