You hear about them all the time: abused, neglected or delinquent children who are taken into state custody.
You may not know is what happens to them next.
Don L. Nicholson II and D. Kent Meyers didn't, not until they visited the Oklahoma County Juvenile Justice Center and the Pauline E. Meyers Children's Center as part of a Child Watch Tour in 1997. They learned there were more than 5,000 children in foster care, and their cases were being handled by just four public defenders.
Four versus 5,000. Kids were stuck in the foster care system for years.
When their visit ended, Nicholson and Meyers decided to help. They founded Oklahoma Lawyers for Children, a nonprofit that assists public defenders by providing free legal work on behalf of kids.
“Children who have been picked up and placed in DHS (Department of Human Services) emergency protective custody are required by law to have an attorney to represent them,” said Tsinena Thompson, the nonprofit's president and chief executive, in an email. “However, you cannot hire a private attorney to represent children in DHS custody.”
Lawyers for Children obtained an administrative order in 1998 that changed that, Thompson said. Now their volunteer lawyers were allowed to represent DHS children, too, helping the cases move more quickly through the system.
They discovered new needs as time went on. DHS' legal staff, for example, cannot represent children in civil lawsuits; the nonprofit's lawyers can. Lawyers for Children handles all guardianship paperwork for children in DHS custody. This year its volunteers have helped DHS perform the foster home studies required of anyone looking to become a foster parent.
Over time, the nonprofit has grown to include more than 700 attorney volunteers and 400 volunteers who aren't lawyers, Thompson said. The non-lawyers provide a range of services, including spending time with each child admitted to a shelter.
Operating on a budget of about $237,000, she said, Lawyers for Children provided more than $4.3 million in legal services last year alone. An analysis by The Executive Service Corporation of Central Oklahoma found that the nonprofit's return on investment is 1,057 percent. Each dollar given adds up to $1,057 in services.
While donations are accepted at any time, next month folks will have an opportunity to help the nonprofit's efforts while having a good time, too.
The Evening of Hope — Chips for Children event is on Saturday, Sept. 15, at Science Museum Oklahoma, 2100 NE 52. Cocktail hour begins at 6:30 p.m., with dinner, awards and presentations to follow at 7:30 p.m. Casino gaming wraps up the night.
The event includes an open bar. Dinner will be prepared by Chef Bruce Rinehart of Rococo's Fine Restaurants.
A live auction will offer up exotic vacations and sports packages. Local celebrities will serve as dealers at gaming tables, and entertainment will include live music and the Oklahoma Showgirls.
Tickets begin at $150 and include $50 of chips or play money with which to gamble. Sponsorships are available. For more information, go to www.oklahomalawyersforchildren.camp9.org.