Children’s Rights, Local Counsel Seek Remedy for Worst Failings of Rhode Island’s Child Welfare System

Following 1st Circuit Order to Remand Case, Plaintiffs File Amended Complaint; Address Systemic Failings, Including Overinstitutionalization, Unlicensed Homes, Caseloads, Abuse and Neglect in Care

(Providence, R.I.) – As longstanding, systemic failings within Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) continue to place vulnerable children in harm’s way, plaintiffs have submitted an amended federal class action lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island on behalf of the approximately 1,800 children in state foster care.

Describing in detail the major failings that continue to plague DCYF some eight years after the original lawsuit was filed, the 46-page complaint, submitted by national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP and Rhode Island attorney John Dineen, calls for enforceable reform to alleviate caseloads, increase the number of foster homes, assure adequate licensing and investigative practice, and boost payment rates to foster parents.

“Sadly, children in Rhode Island foster care today continue to suffer the same harms that led to the initial filing of this case,” said Sara Bartosz, lead counsel at Children’s Rights. “The new administration has inherited a broken system. We now intend to secure an enforceable court order assuring that the glaring systemic defects placing children at risk are finally addressed.”

The amended complaint highlights data that describes the severity of DCYF’s flaws:

  • Departing from professional standards, DCYF does not place any limit on the number of children that can be assigned to a caseworker.  In June, July, and August of 2015, approximately 96 percent of caseworkers carried caseloads that exceeded the maximum professional standard—and up to 61 percent carried caseloads that were at least 50 percent higher. According to the most recent available federal data, the agency is 9th worst nationwide when it comes to making required monthly visits with kids.
  •  Children are abused and neglected in foster care and investigations are not completed on time. In federal fiscal year 2013, the state reported 71 incidents of maltreatment of children in foster care. For a decade, children in care have been abused or neglected at a rate that is two to four times the federal standard. DCYF monthly data for January 2013 reveals that 52 of the investigations carried by the two principal investigators of maltreatment in care were overdue. The total statewide number of overdue pre- and post-custodial investigations was 419.
  • DCYF’s foster care maintenance payments are grossly inadequate. According to DCYF’s website, the standard daily board rates paid to foster parents are between $13.64 and $15.79, depending on the age of the child. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that in 2013, the average middle-income, two-parent family in the urban Northeast spent between $38.38 and $45.32 per day per child, not including health care costs. Even after taking into account adjustments to these amounts paid to foster parents and costs not covered by federal law, the state’s standard board rates are far too low.
  • The agency does not recruit enough foster homes. In Rhode Island, 29 percent of the state’s foster children live in expensive emergency shelters, group homes, and other institutions—a rate more than twice the national average and the third highest percentage in the country. The number of children placed out of state almost doubled from July 2012 to July 2014. As of June 30, 2015, there were 42 children placed in shelters. In fiscal year 2013, DCYF placed 57 percent of children over age 12 in group or institutional settings—the fourth highest percentage in the country.
  • DCYF places children in unlicensed homes. Excessive workloads for caseworkers and licensing staff have meant children are placed haphazardly. As of April 2012, for example, 159 children in DCYF’s legal custody—over 13 percent of children in care at the time—were living in unlicensed placements. Seventy three of those children were in 58 unlicensed non-kin homes, while the other 86 children were placed in unlicensed group homes, shelters or private agency placements.
  • Children are separated from their siblings and aren’t able to visit family. Both professional standards and DCYF policy emphasize the importance of keeping siblings together when they are taken into foster care. A 2010 case review found that children in Rhode Island foster care visited with their siblings regularly in only 60 percent of the applicable cases, and rated visits with parents and siblings in foster care to be an area needing improvement. DCYF admitted in its 2010 Statewide Assessment that high caseloads are a barrier to ensuring kids visit with their siblings and parents.

The complaint includes disturbing details about the lives of three children in state care, which highlight the impact of these shortcomings. Lead plaintiff Cassie M., who was separated from her siblings, was in numerous inappropriate foster placements, including approximately one year in the foster home of a woman who had already been flagged by DCYF as needing her license revoked. Her 6-year-old sister, meanwhile, was placed in two shelters for nine months. Cassie was freed for adoption seven years ago, but has bounced around foster homes and group homes and remains in state custody today.

The complaint also describes the life of Andrew, 9, who has been in DCYF custody since he was 4 years old.  He has been separated from his younger siblings, had one placement where his foster parent was unable to properly care for him, leading to his hospitalization, and he was sexually abused in group care. Subsequently he began to act out sexually, and DCYF has separated him from younger children, including his sister. Another child, Matthew, 11, has been placed in a kinship home with a registered sex offender, sexually abused by a child in another foster home, and separated from his two older siblings.

“It is shocking that any child should endure these horrors—let alone when the state is acting as parent,” said Rhode Island attorney and co-counsel John Dineen. “There have been multiple opportunities to take a long, hard look at the state’s systemic failings and create meaningful change, and it has been troubling to watch officials let every one slip by. The children of this state deserve and need much better treatment.”

The filing of Cassie M. v. Raimondo follows an April decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, which found that the district court “abused its discretion” in connection with its dismissal of the federal suit, and vacated and remanded the case for further proceedings. Advocates originally filed the class action, then known as Sam and Tony M. v. Carcieri, in June 2007.