The Oklahoma Legislature passed a new law to create the Family Representation and Advocacy Program, which will pay and train lawyers for children and parents involved in child welfare cases.
Oklahoma parents are guaranteed the right to an attorney in child welfare proceedings, but in many parts of the state there are not enough lawyers trained and willing to take on these cases. Lawyers contracted to represent these families are paid with local dollars, and many district court systems have struggled to pay.
In late 2018, the Trump administration opened a floodgate of federal funding for legal counsel in child welfare cases by allowing states and counties to use Title IV-E money to pay for up to half the cost of providing legal support for children and parents.
Lawmakers have allocated $4.6 million to fund the first year of the program, falling far short of the $20 million the bill’s authors originally requested, according to reporting by local outlet The Frontier. The law takes effect on Nov. 1.
The new program will be responsible for ensuring that all eligible parties — children, indigent parents and guardians, and tribal custodians — can be appointed “uniform and high quality legal representation” by contracting, training and paying attorneys across the state. The Administrative Office of the Courts will select a nonprofit to run the program, which is modeled after a similar program in Tulsa County run by Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.
The program may be restricted in the number of counties it can serve, based on available funding. It will prioritize parts of the state that lack attorneys available for court appointment or where compensation is the lowest, in an effort to equalize the quality of representation statewide, according to a legislative summary. Existing public defenders’ offices will continue to provide representation for children.
The bill also authorizes the Family Representation and Advocacy Program to hire social workers, peer mentors, and parent and youth advocates to help provide a holistic support network for families.
Research has shown that interdisciplinary models like this lead to higher and quicker rates of reunification and shorter stays in foster care for children who find different permanency pathways, like guardianship or adoption by relatives.
Lack of legal aid in child welfare proceedings is not unique to Oklahoma. Counsel is not guaranteed for parents in all parts of the country. In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services that courts are not required to provide attorneys for parents, even when their parental rights are at stake. Many jurisdictions face similar challenges in finding enough well-trained attorneys to take on the number of cases eligible for appointed counsel, as the vast majority of parents in child welfare courts are indigent.
Still, legal experts and those in the field consistently point to high-quality representation as a key factor in empowering families embroiled in these cases and in improving outcomes for children.
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act does require that children have representation in court, but it does not fund that mandate nor does it require that representation be carried out by a lawyer. A new study from the National Association of Counsel for Children found that more than a dozen states still fail to provide lawyers for children.
In recent years a growing movement at the state and local level has pushed toward broadening access to legal care — an effort recently bolstered by the federal government. In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau called on child welfare agencies, courts and other groups to work together to ensure all parties in child welfare proceedings receive better legal representation.
Since federal funding became available to support this work, the Children’s Bureau has begun encouraging states to use it to implement multi-disciplinary legal aid models for those in or at-risk of foster care.