Lawmakers agreed this session to fund the first year of a statewide program to provide better legal representation for children and parents in the child welfare system.

The state will spend $4.6 million to create the Family Representation and Advocacy Program, housed under the Administrative Office of the Courts, to pay and train attorneys to work with parents and kids, manage caseloads and provide support during court cases. The program will also coordinate with social workers and other staff to help families. 

“It’s very exciting,” said Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, who worked to get the bill approved.

Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa

Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services and advocacy groups for lawyers, parents and kids have spent years trying to minimize the time children spend in state custody. 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 families get well-trained lawyers in a timely manner.

Low pay, high caseloads and a lack of funding for support staff like investigators or expert witnesses make it difficult to find attorneys willing to take on these cases.

Preliminary data from a parent representation program in Tulsa County shows that parents who receive high-quality legal representation are more likely to be reunited with their kids, who spend less time in state custody. Lawmakers pointed to that early success to make a case for statewide funding.

The Administrative Office of the Courts will seek a nonprofit to manage the program through a central state office. 

Lawmakers initially asked for roughly $20 million to roll the program out statewide, but Lawson said the $4.6 million should be enough to set up the central office and begin hiring staff. 

Most counties have existing contracts with attorneys to provide parents and kids legal representation, said former Tulsa County Judge Doris Fransein. Those contracts are paid for with local dollars. District court systems, which have struggled to keep up with costs in recent years, will benefit from the new state program, Fransein said.

The number of counties that can be included in the program will depend on funding. The program will focus initially on counties that have a hard time finding attorneys or that pay the lowest rates. 

Lawmakers will decide how much, if any, additional funding to give the program during the next legislative session. 

“Someone will have to lobby heavily next session for more money,” Fransein said.

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