In a Strange Land
The resilience of Oana Brooks
Published in 2022 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine on December 17, 2021
As a prosecutor for the City of Baltimore, Oana Brooks witnessed the courage of a 9-year-old girl who took to the witness stand to tell the graphic, horrific story of her abuse at the hands of a family friend. The story was difficult to bear but the girl told it without hesitation. When the case was appealed and a new trial granted, the girl didn’t hesitate to get back on the stand.
“I recall some of my supervisors telling me, ‘You’re going to do that again?’” Brooks says. “But it wasn’t just me. The child and the mom, they were committed to being in that courtroom. Children are incredibly resilient.”
Brooks, now a Baltimore schools and education attorney, understands that better than most.
She was 9 when her parents fled Romania in 1987 to search for a better life for their family. As Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist regime crumbled, and the nation suffered through food rations, human-rights atrocities and international isolation, Brooks’ parents were two of many border-crossers who attempted to swim across the Danube River. Brooks’ father did not survive.
Brooks and her brother were at home with their great-grandmother at the time. Initially they didn’t talk much about what happened.
“We certainly knew our parents were gone,” Brooks says. “I sort of pieced it together. But it was very difficult because at 9 and 3, which is how old my brother was, it’s kind of hard to understand and make sense of things.”
After time at a U.N. refugee camp, Brooks’ mother immigrated to the U.S. and sent for Brooks and her brother. Soon Brooks found herself in a strange land called New Jersey, trying to keep up in school where they spoke a strange language. “Sometimes it feels like I’ve had multiple lives in one life,” she says.
Facing down the still-fresh trauma of losing her father and her homeland was difficult, so Brooks kept her head in her studies because she says it was path forward to something better. Her mother worked three jobs—often waking up at 4 a.m. to deliver newspapers—and was adamant about speaking English at home so her children wouldn’t fall behind in school. “I think for a long time it was … I don’t want to say survival mode, but it was just staying focused and not veering too far off emotionally,” says Brooks.
Despite those efforts, Brooks says she often felt the echoes of her early years in Romania and was conscious of the devastating price her family paid for escaping.
After making it through undergrad at University of Maryland and then its Francis King Carey School of Law, Brooks thought she might get into policy work, perhaps working for the UN on immigration reform.
“I never wanted to be in a courtroom,” she says, adding she was “terrified of public speaking.” But John Prevas, Chief Judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, offered Brooks a clerkship, where half of the docket covered criminal cases.
“What drew me in was the idea that I could be a voice for those that were experiencing really horrible things,” Brooks says. “To fight for people that you’re meeting sometimes on the worst days of their life. That was one of the best jobs I ever had. I really felt like it was a privilege.”
From 2007 through 2015, Brooks prosecuted hundreds of complex cases, including felony sexual offenses, armed robberies and attempted murder. As an Assistant State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, then as chief of the office’s juvenile division, she regularly partnered with law enforcement on complex investigations and advocated on behalf of victims.
By then, Brooks’ skill set made her a match for Johns Hopkins University’s fledgling Office of Institutional Equity, then a three-attorney shop that investigated discrimination complaints involving students and employees throughout all of the university’s campuses and parts of its hospital. The work itself was extensive—and highly pressurized. As the #MeToo movement roiled the nation, Brooks’ team investigated complex Title IX matters like sex assault allegations.
“I wasn’t an advocate for any one side,” she adds. “It was crucial to be neutral to gather information, to gather evidence and to have the facts lead you to wherever they lead you. It can be very dangerous to have blinders on.”
As a solo practitioner, she continues to consult for colleges, universities and businesses while navigating civil matters and criminal defense work. The bulk of her practice revolves around representing students in higher education who have been accused of violating policies. Brooks says she’s attuned to just how much damage political winds can inflict.
“I’ve seen too many cases where people lose sight completely of that neutrality aspect and come to the table and to the investigation with a bias,” she says. “And that can be very dangerous. On college campuses, at high schools and middle schools, wherever you are, it’s really crucial for that role to be independent of public pressure.
“This idea that people should have due process … My dad died in that river for me to be in a place with freedom and rights and the ability to, theoretically at least, be treated fairly. That is incredibly important to me.”