William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun
OKLA. CITY —
It has been said that you can judge a society by how it treats it’s most vulnerable members and a visit to the Juvenile Justice Center in Oklahoma City allows one to see how vulnerable children are treated in Oklahoma County.
In that facility several Oklahoma County judges preside over cases involving children who have been found to be neglected or deprived and removed from their homes and placed in foster care as a result.
Mike Evans, the Court Administrator of Oklahoma, recently reported that there are more than 11,000 children currently in foster care in the state of Oklahoma and that more than half of them are under the age of five. The state of Oklahoma is represented by the Oklahoma County District Attorney who has offices staffed by several assistants in the building. Oklahoma law mandates that the goal is to return the children to their parents if possible.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services, which also has offices at the Juvenile Justice Center, puts plans in place for parents of those children. Those plans are individually tailored for each case and often involve things such as parenting classes, courses on anger management and substance abuse counseling.
Since many of the parents are homeless and unemployed, those programs sometimes mandate that the parents obtain employment and a residence. The foster care system operated by DHS is currently being restructured in accordance with the terms set forth in the settlement of a federal lawsuit that was brought against the department several years ago.
There are several attorneys who have contracts with the Oklahoma County Court to represent indigent parents and some of the children are represented by attorneys who volunteer at the court.
The cases are usually reviewed every 90 days. Rrepresentatives from DHS, the parents and attorneys who represent the children appear before the Juvenile Court Judge who assesses how the parents and children are doing. A written report is usually presented at the hearing, but efforts are now underway to insure that those reports reach the interested parties several days before the hearing date. Those reports indicate if the parents are complying with their plans and doing the things necessary to have their children returned to them and also tell of how the child or children in question are doing in their foster care placements.
If the DHS employee assigned to the case concludes that the parents are not making progress, he or she can make a recommendation to the court that their parental rights be terminated. If parental rights are terminated, the foster parents — particularly of young children — seek to adopt them and DHS often assists in that process.
But many of the older children in the foster care system remain in it until they reach the age of 18, when they “age out” and the court no longer has jurisdiction over them.
It seems that all of the parties involved in the Juvenile Court of Oklahoma County are committed to doing what they think is best for the children involved.
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.