Rachelle Ali likes to call herself a “hope dealer.” 

She regained full custody of her kids from the child welfare system in 2019 after dealing with mental health, substance use and domestic violence struggles. Now she’s working to help other parents reunite with their children.

“I can tell clients ‘I’ve been there. I know what you’re going through, I understand and I care,’” she said. “I’ve literally seen a client just totally relax. They hear my story, and then they open up like a floodgate.” 

Ali became the first parent mentor with the Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma’s Parent Representation Defense Program in 2021. The program provides legal representation to indigent Tulsa County parents with kids in state custody, and Ali helps parents navigate family court as part of the program’s Parent Defense Teams, which match some clients with a parent mentor and a social worker in addition to a lawyer.

More than 130 out of about 2,250 total clients have received Parent Defense Team support, said program director Gwendolyn Clegg.

Children with parents who received these additional supports spent less time in state custody and were also more likely to be reunited with family, Clegg said. Cases with a Parent Defense Team last around 14.5 months and have a reunification rate of 53%, according to program data provided to The Frontier. Statewide, kids exiting foster care in fiscal year 2022 spent 21.6 months in state custody on average and were reunified with family 43% of the time, according to Department of Human Services data. 

Lawmakers are pointing to this early success to help make a case for funding a similar program statewide. In Oklahoma, parents who lose custody through the child welfare system have a right to an attorney, but the state doesn’t currently have the funding or systems in place to ensure high-quality legal representation. 

Most counties rely on court funds collected through fines and fees to pay lawyers, and those funds have been slowly dwindling over the last few years. A state task force formed to study family representation issues found in a 2020 report that pay is “one of the primary barriers” to recruiting and maintaining lawyers in child welfare cases.  

Full implementation of a program to provide uniform family legal representation statewide would cost around $20 million every year. The program would also provide services to children. Advocates say providing high-quality legal services could decrease the cost of foster care placements, which the state budgeted nearly $119 million for in fiscal year 2023, according to a hearing in October at the state Capitol.

Under the current system, representation is uneven and varies by county. Parents and children each have their own legal representation in child welfare cases. In Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, nonprofit agencies help represent kids and parents with volunteer or contract attorneys. In most other counties, the courts have contracts with individual lawyers to represent kids or parents. 

Compensation for these types of cases is low and inconsistent across the state, making it difficult to find willing attorneys. 

The Tulsa-based Parent Representation Defense Program provides high-quality legal representation to indigent parents who have lost custody of their children to the child welfare system. Lawmakers have pointed to the early success of Tulsa’s program to make a case for building a statewide representation system. Dylan Goforth/THE FRONTIER

District Judge Michael Flanagan in Cotton County said he once had a budget of $3,000 for a full year to pay lawyers to take child welfare cases. Flanagan told lawmakers in October that outside of Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, about $5.25 million is budgeted yearly for indigent representation statewide. 

“We have a montage of systems, and it has not worked for the best interests of our children and our parents,” Flanagan said. 

Joe Dorman, director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, frequently fields calls from families looking for legal assistance in a child welfare proceeding. But Dorman’s advocacy group doesn’t provide legal services, and there aren’t many options available to direct families to, especially in rural areas. 

Many attorneys who take child welfare work have their own private practices and typically do these cases on the side, said Tsinena Thompson, an administrator for Oklahoma Lawyers for Families and Children. 

Overbusy attorneys don’t always provide parents a vigorous defense or challenge unreasonable, court-imposed requirements to regain custody of a child. If adequate legal work hasn’t been done before the state is required to file to terminate parental rights, parents “don’t stand a chance,” Thompson said.

“You really can’t do these types of cases justice that way,” Thompson said. “It takes competent, swift, deliberate, accurate advocacy to help reunify these families.” 

Issues outside of pay exist, too. Lawyers need additional training because of the complexities of child welfare laws, and caseloads can be high for the metro attorneys who do agree to take cases. Many parent attorneys are typically appointed after a child has already been removed from the home. These lawyers rarely have the support of investigators, paralegals and expert witnesses to dispute the state’s evidence.

Attorneys for children are easier to find than attorneys for parents, judges said, but children’s attorneys still face many of the same problems. Foster parents and lawyers who represent kids have detailed these challenges to lawmakers the last few years, including delayed court dates, high caseloads and a lack of communication. 

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” said retired Tulsa County Juvenile Judge Doris Fransein.

‘You must help their parents’

More than a decade ago, Stephanie Deeter, another parent mentor in Tulsa, was working to get her kids back from the state. It had been almost two years since child welfare workers removed her children from her custody because of an issue with their father, she said. She had multiple case workers and a court-imposed service plan to regain custody that kept changing, which made it difficult to keep track of what was required of her and keep the case moving forward.

Families that come into contact with the child welfare system are in crisis and often need help navigating the system, which can frequently feel overwhelming and hopeless, said Priscilla Minor-Thoms, who supervises social workers for the Parent Defense Teams. 

“But there’s still an expectation that they should be able to absorb information and know what they should do next,” Minor-Thoms said. “You have to figure out a way to get them where they can hear something and then latch onto hope and move forward.”

The Parent Representation Defense Program has an annual budget of about $1.9 million and contracts with local attorneys to represent parents. The program also provides participating attorneys with training, better pay, lower caseloads, help with legal strategy and access to the Parent Defense Teams. 

Parents with access to a team have their kids more frequently placed with relatives rather than in traditional foster care, see mandated requirements to regain custody of their children that are specific to the family’s needs, and are more engaged with the court and their case workers, Clegg said. Even if kids don’t ultimately end up reunified with their parents, Parent Defense Team cases move more quickly toward other types of permanent options for kids like adoption or guardianship, she added. 

Support outside of the courtroom from social workers and parent mentors helps link families to effective mental health and substance use treatment, housing, education and other resources. 

Gwendolyn Clegg, program director for the Tulsa-based Parent Representation Defense Program, talks with parent mentors and social work interns about the representation they provide parents with kids in the child welfare system. Dylan Goforth/THE FRONTIER

“To save children, you must help their parents,” Clegg said.  

District attorneys are legally obligated to seek the termination of parental rights in court when a child over the age 4 spends 15 of the last 22 months in foster care except in a handful of circumstances, like if kids are being cared for by relatives or the state hasn’t provided reasonable efforts to get the family connected to services. Parents can struggle to complete court-mandated requirements to improve child welfare in that time without adequate legal representation and other supports. 

Neglect associated with poverty is the most common reason families are involved in the child welfare system, according to DHS officials. The likelihood a child is reunified with their family diminishes sharply the longer they spend in state custody, according to a 2022 report on Oklahoma’s foster care system

“We have a major issue with foster care in the state of Oklahoma,” Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, told lawmakers at a hearing for his Senate Bill 907, one of the bills this year that would create a statewide family representation program based on the program in Tulsa. 

“In many cases, the parents of the deprived children just don’t have the ability to understand the whole legal system and the challenges that are set forth in front of them,” Rosino said. “We’re trying to say ‘hey, we want to make sure these parents have every opportunity to get their kids back if they do everything they’re supposed to do.’”  

Questions in the state Senate

Senate Bill 907 and House Bill 1017 would create the Family Representation and Advocacy Program housed in a central office under the Administrative Office of the Courts to supervise lawyers, oversee training, manage caseloads and compensation and issue standards of practice for attorneys representing children, indigent parents, legal guardians and Indian custodians of deprived children. 

The Administrative Office of the Courts would contract with a nonprofit to manage the program. The program would be required to ensure that counties across the state are equitably served, attorneys contracted through the program see increased pay and clients are connected to mentors and social workers, the legislation reads. 

Multiple other states have versions of similar programs, according to the Family Justice Initiative

Last year, a similar program was unanimously approved in the House but stalled in the Senate. The House has already approved one of the bills this session. 

Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, told The Frontier that programs supporting families are a high priority this session, and bill authors say Senate Appropriations Chairman Roger Thompson has signaled his support for the program as well.

It’s possible a scaled-down version of the program would be put in place to cut the cost, said Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, who authored House Bill 1017. Tulsa’s program is funded through grants, court funds and federal dollars for child welfare. 

Some senators have questioned the cost when discussing the legislation. Gov. Kevin Stitt’s proposed budget for the next year holds funding flat for the district courts and the Department of Human Services in favor of education savings plans and tax cuts.