The people of Oklahoma County know how to react to a crisis and have compassion and an unmatched commitment to the common good. It is time we focus this force in a new direction.
According to the Department of Human Services, as of April 30 Oklahoma County has 4,208 children in out-of-home care, representing 36.4 percent of the 11,573 children in foster care in the state. All of these abused and neglected children deserve our commitment to return them to a stable and fit home or find them a new, permanent home that can give them the love and care they deserve.
A recent review by the American Bar Association made several recommendations, while recognizing the competency and commitment of the judges, attorneys and other professionals and that all parties are doing the best work they can with available resources. The people in the Juvenile Justice Center have no control over the amount of resources available, but we share a passion for our work and a commitment to improve the lives of these unfortunate victims.
If we look at the caseload in Oklahoma County in relation to the state, there is a disproportionate caseload placed on the county. In July 2006, Oklahoma County's population was 691,266, accounting for 19.3 percent of the 3,579,212 people in Oklahoma (according to U.S. Census). However, during that same period of time, Oklahoma County had nearly one-third of the state's foster children (3,914 of the 11,910 in care across the state).
We have made changes since the May 2007 ABA report. Each of the four juvenile court judges has staggered dockets into four or six dockets instead of two, allowing caseworkers to get out of court more quickly and spend more time "working the case."
The number of attorneys representing indigent parents has increased from five to eight, allowing each judge to spend more time with the case and make more informed decisions based on the best interests of the child.
The part-time referee is now full time, available to assist judges with critical issues, such as monitoring DHS efforts to find homes for the children in temporary shelters.
The public defender plans to have six of the recommended eight children's attorneys on staff by July 1, 2008.
More action is planned. This week, the Juvenile Justice Center held an open house to help families with the goal of helping before a child "becomes a case." On Thursday, the judges will meet with critical personnel to review all practices to determine additional ways to find permanent homes for these children.
There are several ways individuals can help children in protective custody — as a volunteer with organizations such as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Lawyers for Children or the Post Adjudication Review Board — or by becoming a foster parent. These children are gifts from God. With your help, we can make a difference in their lives.Kirby is associate district judge presiding over the Oklahoma County juvenile courts.