Children’s Rights and Rhode Island Child Advocate Sue to Protect Rhode Island Foster Children

PROVIDENCE, RI — The Child Advocate of Rhode Island, joined by national child advocacy group Children’s Rights and the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, filed suit today in federal court seeking to reform the Rhode Island child welfare system, to protect the rights of the approximately 3,000 children living in state custody. The class action lawsuit cites pervasive and ongoing harm to children in foster care resulting from systemic problems, including mismanagement and lack of oversight, within Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). Ten Rhode Island children in foster care who have been damaged by the system are named as plaintiffs.

Attorneys from the child advocacy organization Children’s Rights, who have brought many similar cases around the country, and the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges are assisting with the lawsuit and are seeking to serve as co-counsel. Rhode Island attorney John Dineen is also counsel on the case.

“The Office of the Child Advocate is obligated to protect the best interests of our state’s children, which is precisely what this suit sets out to do,” said Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston. “The evidence is well-documented that abused and neglected children are not getting the protection and services that they need and are entitled to from the Rhode Island child welfare system. Consistent with our obligation to protect the best interests of our state’s children, this suit seeks to achieve systemic, sorely needed reforms.”

The suit, Sam and Tony M. v. Carcieri, cites extensive evidence that Rhode Island has consistently fallen short of its obligations and caused harm to abused and neglected children in its custody. Among the documentation cited are a 2003 report by a task force created by the Rhode Island legislature that criticized the delivery of child welfare services; a 2004 federal review that identified widespread problems in the state’s child welfare system; the 2005 T.J.Wright Child Fatality Report, named for the boy who was beaten to death by foster parents DCYF had not licensed, which concluded that the Rhode Island child welfare system had serious, systemic, and pervasive problems; a 2006 federal regional review of Rhode Island’s child welfare system that revealed little to no progress in improving children’s safety and wellbeing; and the Child Advocate’s own 2006 report, which also found little progress toward improving the chronically underperforming child welfare system.

Among the devastating results for foster children documented in the class action complaint are:

  • Children are frequently abused and neglected while in state foster care. Rhode Island was the worst in the nation in the number of children abused and neglected while in state foster care in five of the six years between 2000 and 2005;
  • Children are placed in large, orphanage-like institutions rather than in homes, and are frequently left to languish there, sometimes for years;
  • Caseworkers have dangerously high caseloads that far exceed national standards and that endanger the children the state is mandated to protect.

“Every day abused and neglected children in Rhode Island suffer further physical and emotional harm because the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to protect and provide for them,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Despite well-documented facts of systemic failures, Rhode Island has failed to take necessary steps to protect its children. That’s why we are joining in this lawsuit, as we have done elsewhere, to compel the state to fulfill its legal and moral responsibility to abused and neglected children.”

“As Ms. Alston and Ms. Lowry note, Rhode Island’s child welfare system is failing the children it is supposed to protect,” said Vern Winters, a partner in Weil, Gotshal & Manges’ litigation group. “Weil has helped children in a number of different legal contexts, and we’re glad to be helping in the effort to bring much-needed reforms through this litigation.”

Sam and Tony M. v. Carcieri is a civil rights class action brought on behalf of all children who are or will be in the legal custody of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families due to a report or suspicion of abuse or neglect. The suit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to compel Defendants–the Governor of the State of Rhode Island; Jane A. Hayward, Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services; and Patricia Martinez, Director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families–to meet their legal obligations to care for and protect Rhode Island’s abused and neglected children in foster care by reforming the state’s dysfunctional child welfare system.

Co-Counsel

Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston was appointed by Governor Donald Carcieri in 2005. She is a former civil prosecutor with the Attorney General’s office and the past president of the Rhode Island Bar Association. Ms. Alston is also the former Solicitor for the city of Cranston, RI.

Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP is an international law firm with more than 1,100 lawyers in 18 offices worldwide, including Providence, and is a charter signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge. It has won numerous awards for its community service, public interest, and pro bono legal work.

John Dineen is a licensed Rhode Island attorney with substantial experience litigating civil rights matters in the federal courts.

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Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210