From the Archives: Our First News Article!

Let’s turn the clock back 18 years to revisit our first article in The Oklahoman! The story below appeared in the May 3, 1998 paper. Read it at NewsOK here.

Legal Group to Work for Deprived Children

By: Penny Owen

Let’s say Oklahoma County public defenders had a wish list.

Instead of just having three overworked attorneys handling more than 2,000 deprived children in the court system, public defenders could call upon dozens of private lawyers to help do the job.

The lawyers wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime. They might even spend their own money on exhibits, charts and, occasionally, a private investigator and out-of-state deposition. And these lawyers wouldn’t be amateurs. In fact, they’d be the cream of Oklahoma City’s legal community.

Oklahoma Lawyers for Children, an alliance of 77 experienced Oklahoma City lawyers, became incorporated Thursday as a charitable corporation.

With that incorporation comes a commitment from each lawyer to represent, free of charge, at least one deprived child caught in the tangle of courts, custody and parents accused of horrible things. The children, most of whom are poor, abused, neglected or otherwise maltreated, now will have their own advocates. Good ones.

“We can’t lose,” said Bob Ravitz, Oklahoma County’s chief public defender.

The help couldn’t have come soon enough. On top of the 2,155 pending deprived child cases in the juvenile public defender’s office, and 1,200 new children who wind up in the system each year, Ravitz said his office must provide counsel for another 200 cases per year that fall under the 1996 Ryan Luke Law.

Under Ryan Luke, when parents become involved in heated child custody battles, the public defender must step in to represent the best interests of the child – regardless of the wealth of the parents.

“If they weren’t assisting us, sooner or later, we’d need some more personnel,” Ravitz said. “Hopefully, over a period of time, it will prevent some of the atrocities we’ve read about over the years.”

Atrocities like Shane Coffman, the 8-year-old boy who was found in his family’s abandoned freezer. Like the 42 children reported dead from abuse and neglect last year. And the thousands of injured children, whose numbers have doubled in the last 10 years.

The idea began forming about four years ago, when a Cleveland County judge asked lawyer Don Nicholson II to become a court-appointed child advocate.

“The first three cases I had were real heartjerkers,” said Nicholson, who is with the Oklahoma City firm Eagleton, Nicholson, Pordos & Pardue.

Even four years later, one of those cases continues to work its way through the court system. The 11 siblings involved are warehoused in foster care, each in a different home.

Nicholson said the 11 children were “horribly injured” when a local fire marshal found them wandering the streets and setting fires. One of the children had 30 scars from abuse; another was sexually molested.

“They’re about as screwed up as they can be, but cute and with good IQs,” Nicholson said. “They all have potential.”

“I became so frustrated in that case, you know, I wasn’t sleeping good and I’m a mighty good sleeper,” said Nicholson, who finally asked his colleague, D. Kent Meyers of the Crowe & Dunlevy firm, to take over the case.

One of the older boys, now 13, was sent to Minnesota to live with his grandmother over Meyers’ objections. Nicholson said that boy has since committed crimes.

Even now, after four years and an estimated $200,000 in therapy, court and foster care costs, Nicholson said his wife continues to take one of the girls to therapy once a week.

“While we haven’t got any results yet, we’re beginning to box them in,” said Nicholson. “We hope that the majority of those children can be adopted and we are seeking termination of the mother’s rights.”

Even for the most experienced lawyers, the cases aren’t simple.

One case, for instance, involves five siblings who are being kept in different foster homes while their mother gets treatment for drug abuse, sexual abuse, and anger problems, to name a few.

“The children very, very seldom get a chance to visit each other,” said Meyers, who is handling the case. “We’re doing our best to get them consolidated a little bit.”

Another involves two girls belonging to a mother jailed in Las Vegas.

The mother was accused in September 1996 of prostituting her daughters, then ages 4 and 7, on the Las Vegas streets. One of the girls told detectives her mother sold her “both day and night” for “$50, no refunds.”

While the mother remains in jail, her daughters are in foster care in Oklahoma City.

To speed up the process, Meyers’ firm sent a lawyer to Las Vegas to take the mother’s deposition. That also meant persuading the Cook County, Nevada, public defender to provide a lawyer for the mother.

Arranging a video deposition in jail is never easy.

“I’ve been here forever… and we’ve never taken a deposition out of state, on any case, and they spent their own money to do it,” said Ravitz, who figured the move saved six months to a year in delays.

Ravitz said volunteer lawyers also have prepared courtroom charts, exhibits and used their support staff to complete paperwork. Crowe & Dunlevy gave the public defender computers and a copier – luxuries they cannot afford on a $250,000 annual budget.

“Within reason, no commitment is too much if you have a chance to look at one of these kids or hold their hand. You’ll do anything for them,” said Meyers, now an alliance board member. “I’m just really gratified at the response we’re getting from the legal community.”

Of the 79 lawyers asked to join the alliance, 77 signed on. The other two said they might help out later.

Since they began taking cases some six months ago, Oklahoma Lawyers for Children has taken four to trial and is handling one in the appeals process.

Oklahoma City is not the first to come up with an alliance of volunteer lawyers for children. Similar programs exist in Washington, D.C., Denver, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Participating lawyers also were required to attend a day-long seminar on how to handle children’s cases. They were told by those who’ve been through it to get to know the children, and to help them through the trauma of court and uncertainty.

It also took a court order from Oklahoma County District Judge Niles Jackson to make the alliance official. Thursday’s incorporation will allow the group to accept donations to cover some of their expenses.

“Our dream, of course, is to do a good job here in Oklahoma County and let this thing expand to become statewide,” Nicholson said.

The bottom line, the advocates say, is to get these children into safe homes, before they are damaged by a system meant to protect them.

“We’ve already kind of broken down some of the barriers,” Nicholson said. “This ought to work.”

Why I Love “Our Little Tennis Clinic”

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By: Tsinena Thompson, OLFC President & CEO

I happen to love tennis. I love that it's a physical sport, but it's also a very "polite" sport. Women can play with men, children can play with adults in singles or doubles.

It sure seems like a lot more people are taking up tennis these days. It's so much fun to see little kids learning to swing a racquet next to the court of some "super seniors" who may not move quite as quickly as they once did, but can drop that ball exactly where they want and right where their opponent is not. Maybe more people are taking up tennis because it can be played inside or outside, rain or shine. Maybe it's because you can play the game as a single player or as part of a team, or possibly because it's great exercise and unlike golf, you don't have to take five hours out of your day to play.

Maybe tennis is so popular because it brings a unique joy to players’ lives.

About five years ago, Suzanne LaBelle, Tennis Director at The Greens Country Club, suggested that they open up the club’s summer juniors tennis program a week out of the summer to invite foster children. The Greens' juniors tennis program is really well-run and taught by USTA certified pros who truly care about giving quality instruction to their young students. This sounded like a great idea to me because in our metro area, state-run shelters and group homes were still housing foster children. In these placements, opportunities for foster kids to get out and do the kind of fun things that most other children do during the summer months were severely lacking.

OLFC jumped at the chance to bring tennis to foster youth, so we arranged for kids to come by van or bus from the shelters and group homes to give it a try. Most of these children had never been to a tennis court and would certainly be coming without racquets, but The Greens staff wasn't worried in the least. "If you can get them here,” Suzanne told me, “we will make sure there are enough tennis racquets and pros for the proper ratio." The first two days, there were maybe 10-12 kids. But on the following days, there were more and more as word spread after the kids returned back to the shelter or group homes talking about how much fun the clinic was and what a great time they had. That first year, we had over 50 kids that ended up coming to the clinic!

The next years were even better as we reached out to foster families by offering the clinic to children in regular foster placements as well as the children in shelters or group homes. Foster families were very grateful for a few hours’ reprieve, so they could go to the grocery store, run errands or just relax a bit knowing that their foster children were in a safe, healthy environment having fun.

We also started offering the kids more than tennis lessons alone. Since tennis clinics typically start between 8:00 - 8:30 in the morning, we decided that it would be a good idea to have a little something available for the kids to eat before heading out to the courts for several hours of exercise. We started bringing in fresh juice, fruit, yogurt & granola cups and muffins to make sure the kiddos were properly fueled up. And, well, everyone knows that kids are always hungry, so we started cooking out for them every day after the clinic was over. And, well, you know it gets pretty hot in the summer, so why not make arrangements for the kids to go swimming at The Greens family pool to cool off and relax a bit?

And so OLFC's little tennis clinic has grown. As the years have gone by, it's not uncommon for us to have well over 100 foster children come to the OLFC's week-long tennis clinic at The Greens.

Over the years, I've spoken with several foster families that have told me how much this clinic helped their foster child. It's hard for traumatized children to find healthy outlets for their frustrations. They've been removed from their homes through no fault of their own. Now living with people they barely know - or may not have ever even met before - ripped away from siblings, pets and other familiar aspects of home. Who wouldn't be upset?

Many foster parents have commented to me that their kiddo sure had a lot of aggression to get out, and tennis sure seemed to help a lot! Others remarked that their foster child had difficulty being respectful or using manners and that the polite, respectful nature of tennis really helped that. Wow! Who would have thought that?

Without question, the most moving story of how OLFC's little tennis clinic made a difference to a child came a couple of years ago when I sat down next to a man who had been bringing four to six children to the clinic the first couple of days.

I asked him, "Surely these are not all of your foster kids, right?" He laughed and quickly said no, that he and his wife had a sibling group of three boys and that the other children belonged to neighbors who were also fostering. As he would come to drop off or pick up the kids we would wave hello or goodbye. A couple of times, as he was waiting for the kids to get their things, we would chat a little and I learned that he and his wife had been foster parents almost 17 years! As we continued talking, I asked him which of the boys out on the court were his foster sons. I will never forget him smiling, pointing out the boys one by one - and of course I would say hello and goodbye to them as they came to the clinic each day.

On the last day of the clinic, the foster dad came up a little early and sat down to chat with me. I asked him if the boys had enjoyed the clinic and if he thought they might like to continue playing. We were sitting in the gallery looking out over the courts and he pointed out one of his foster sons that looked about 16 years old, and then he began to break out in tears. Not knowing what was wrong, or if the clinic had been a disaster for this kid, I really didn't know what to do or say. The man gathered himself, apologized profusely for the tears and told me that in all of the years and all of the children that had been placed in his and his wife's home, he had never, ever seen a young man so utterly convinced that he could do nothing right. He looked me right in the eyes, shook his head and repeated so that I would really understand that this handsome young man did not believe that he could do even the simplest thing right.

All of his life, he had been screamed at, beaten and had it pounded into his head that he was no good, would never be any good, and could never do anything right. His foster dad continued to weep as he told me what a wonderful thing OLFC's tennis clinic had been for this young man. On the first day when the boys came home, this young man viewed himself as he always had, that it wouldn't make any difference if he went back because he could never learn to play. But the boy's younger brother reminded him that he should go back because everyone would get these really cool t-shirts.

So he came back, and when he got there, people were glad to see him. When his foster dad picked him up that day, he was actually beaming, so excited that he had been hitting the ball back and forth over the net! That seemed like such a small thing, but to this young man, it was HUGE. The foster dad told me about the various things that they had tried to do, but nothing seemed to be able to overcome this young man's overwhelming sense of failure - except OLFC's little tennis clinic. As he left that day, I saw a young man come bouncing off the court, just like so many other kids, sweaty, laughing and having fun.

I smiled and yelled out to all of them to have a great day, thrilled on the inside to know that OLFC's little tennis clinic had made a difference in this young man's life.

Learn more about OLFC’s 2016 tennis clinic and tournaments at OLFC.org/events.

It Is My Business

By: Matt Epting, OLFC Director of Development

Matt HeadshotI have only called 9-1-1 one time in my life. It was four years ago.

I was a member of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. We lived in apartment building where there was one front door and interior hallways to get to each apartment. Our members rented out the entire building except for one unit on the first floor.

Inside this unit lived a man whom I never met, although I lived right across the hall from him. None of us, really, had met him. He minded his own business and we minded ours. We never talked to him.

But we heard him.

We heard him, on a weekly basis, shouting at his children. Mixed in with the shouting, we would hear the cries and whimpers of young, upset voices. We never could quite understand the words of what anyone was saying, and we just weren't sure if these incidents were escalating to a dangerous or criminal level.

He minded his own business, and so we minded ours.

After the school year ended, everyone moved out, but I stayed over the summer. I stayed in that same unit across the hall from our unfamiliar neighbor.

One day, the shouting and crying returned. I remember exactly where I was - I was sitting on the couch, watching TV. I tried to ignore the noise, like usual - but this time, it was different.

The yelling thundered over and over across the hall. A voice so bellowing, so filled with rage, that I still could not even understand what he was saying.

And then the screams.

It was more than just crying this time. From my safe, comfortable spot on the couch, I heard the blood-curdling screams of a child, over and over and over. And for the first time, I could understand what the child was saying.

"Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!" the child screamed repeatedly, frantically, desperately.

And so I called 9-1-1. I waited for 15 painful minutes, listening to the unrelenting screams, until the police arrived. Once the officers walked in the front door of the building, I got in my car and left. I spent the rest of the day at a friend's house, shaken and distraught.

The tragic irony was that all of this happened on Father's Day.

It was the day I had to stop minding my own business and intervene in a child's life. But beyond that, it was the day I had to stop minding my own business about the plight of abused and neglected children in my community. And that's why I'm so grateful and proud to be a part of Oklahoma Lawyers for Children. OLFC serves abused and neglected children in the Oklahoma County court system by providing pro bono legal representation. Since 1997, local volunteers have come together to care for our most vulnerable citizens and fight for their safety and well-being.

Because the welfare of our children is our business.

...

I never met the child who lived across the hall from me four years ago. I don't know his name. I don't even know what he looks like. And I don't know what happened to him after I called the police.

But I heard him. And I made the call.

The sad reality is that child abuse and neglect is a crisis in Oklahoma County.

Do you hear it?

Be the Hero in the Mirror

By: Tsinena Thompson, OLFC President & CEO

Tsinena HeadshotThe term "hero" is often reserved for members of the military who have taken extraordinary measures to save fellow servicemen or innocents from extreme peril. Firefighters and police officers who have risked their lives for others are often referred to as heroes. But when taken out of the context surrounding an extraordinary event, heroes in my eyes are really everyday people who give of themselves, often at their own expense or even peril, in order to better the lives of others. In our profession, attorneys are often heroes to their clients for obtaining that multi-million dollar verdict, negotiating lucrative contracts, or saving a company from financial ruin, but it's when they give back to those less fortunate – opposed to "in a real bind" that they become truly worthy of distinction.

Sometime in my thirties, I looked back and realized that it was time for me to get serious about giving back to my community. By most standards I've lived a privileged and extremely lucky life. I've loved my work, made a great living, had great parents, have an amazing husband and wonderful children. My mom worked hard in the family business for years, but still delivered mobile meals, volunteered as a tutor for kids and was very engaged in the community; my dad was one of the most happy hard working people I've ever known, who was also known as the King of the Kiwanis Pancake Breakfasts at Memorial Park. Both were very active in community development, arts and of course OU football. I learned through my parents how important it was to work to better our community by helping people around us in need.

Then, in 1998, Don Nicholson came into my office to ask for my help with Oklahoma Lawyers for Children, a new organization that served foster children. I can honestly say that at that time I really did not understand what it meant to be a foster child. I did not understand that these kids who had done absolutely nothing wrong were the ones who were removed from their homes because of the actions of their parents. That seemed wholly unfair, but then again, they are children who cannot and should not be fending for themselves (although so many do). Then to learn that these children were placed in homes with strangers, in a strange setting, without their pets or other personal items was stunning. These kids had to have a lawyer to make sure that their rights were protected and their needs met while in this very scary, unfriendly situation.

Fast forward to what will be 19 years to a vibrant non-profit serving thousands of children each year, that recruits, trains and coordinates a vast array of attorneys from every area of practice who give so generously of their time, talent and resources to support the mission of Oklahoma Lawyers for Children. Attorneys and citizen volunteers that have their own particular charitable interest rally to the call to assist these children in need. I particularly admire those in the legal profession that have been able to balance their career and serve as directors for a charitable endeavor. Then there are the superheroes of the profession like Don Nicholson and Kent Meyers that founded and still serve Oklahoma Lawyers for Children and others like Reggie Whitten who founded Pros for Africa, Pros for Vets and co-founded Native American Explorers, and the group of Christian attorneys that founded Trinity Legal Clinic.

Highlighting those founders or directors is wonderful to see among the legal profession, but it is not meant to single out those who found an organization or actively serve on a board of directors. Does being a founder of an organization make any more of a hero than the volunteer stocking a food pantry? Hardly. We need the leaders of the legal profession to draw the attention to the organization, and attract the participation of celebrities to help bring those much needed dollars into an organization, but it's the everyday sacrifices that make the most difference. If the service of one person can positively impact one person's life - whether it is protecting a child, donating food, or helping a veteran or the elderly - you are a hero to that person. Take a look in the mirror and see a hero looking back. Rule 6.1 of the Oklahoma Bar Association Rules of Professional Conduct expects such service from the legal community, but it is a commitment that we all should make as citizens of this community. Be the hero in the mirror!

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