Remembering Tragedy While Celebrating a Milestone
“For the Children” Weekly Column by Joe Dorman, OICA CEO
April 17, 2023
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Joe Dorman, CEO – Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy
Telephone: (405) 833-1117
OKLAHOMA CITY – Four decades ago, Oklahoma children who were in the custody of the state faced horrific conditions, both in the facilities in which they were housed, and with the treatment they received from people who were charged with their care.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, an attorney working with Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma sought out young Oklahomans who were incarcerated by the state to file a lawsuit which would come to be known as the “Terry D. Lawsuit.” Seven minors were the plaintiffs going by their first names and last initials. Steven A. Novick, the lead attorney on the case, dedicated countless hours investigating allegations and working to build a compelling case against the State of Oklahoma.
This caught the attention of both local and national media. Gannett News, a media company which owned both Oklahoma City’s KOCO-TV and The Muskogee Phoenix here in Oklahoma, began a series of investigative reports. Led by reporters Bill Gallagher and Terri Watkins, the company outlined the horrific acts being committed on children. Their print report “Oklahoma Shame” detailed the case against the state by going into detail about the actions being perpetrated. You can view it at https://tinyurl.com/OKShame.
In 1982, “20/20” ran an expose entitled “Throwaway Kids” that interviewed individuals involved with the lawsuit, including children who been incarcerated in state-run youth facilities. Producers Karen Burnes and Bill Lichtenstein spent months in Oklahoma gathering the facts for the show. You can watch the story at https://vimeo.com/816054592.
This all led to congressional hearings regarding how children were abused and neglected, soon followed by state action to address the crimes being committed.
As a result of this lawsuit and the press coverage, the Oklahoma Legislature acted by creating the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth (OCCY), a state agency charged with watchdog oversight of the other entities overseeing the treatment of children. They also broke apart the omnibus state agency overseeing children, which led to the creation of the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA), the state system overseeing justice-involved children, and Oklahoma Human Services (DHS) focusing care on foster youth and other children in need of similar support.
Fast-forward 40 years, and Oklahoma has been recognized for vast improvements in the way we care for children who are under the care of the state. Gone are the corrections-style systems which serve as a feeder program into the adult penal system. Instead, we have facilities which are modern and seek to help children overcome the trauma they experienced which led them into the state system.
The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) has been a part of this effort, with our mission working to improve state laws and agency policies on behalf of the children receiving services and support. We have, over the past forty years, been heavily involved in bringing about better opportunities for young Oklahomans. In fact, one of the child plaintiffs from the case, Laura Choate, serves as one of our board members.
On Thursday, April 27 in Oklahoma City, and on Friday, April 28 in Catoosa, OICA will host two luncheons which will bring together those early pioneers who were a part of the lawsuit and the journalists who covered this story. Those individuals mentioned above will be a part of the panel discussion, along with others involved in promoting the history of this case.
If you are a former board member for OICA, we want you to be our guest at one or both luncheons. For anyone interested in learning more about this history, please go to https://www.oica.org or call our office at (405) 236-5437 ext. 2 to find out how to attend these luncheons.