Citing Widespread Abuse of Kids in Foster Care and Seeking Sweeping Reforms, Advocates Sue Massachusetts Governor

swingsetSPRINGFIELD & BOSTON, MA — Citing one of the nation’s highest rates of abuse of children in foster care and other persistent and severe problems throughout the Massachusetts child welfare system, the national advocacy group Children’s Rights and Boston law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP — with the support of advocates and families throughout the state — today filed a class action in federal court seeking broad reform on behalf of 8,500 abused and neglected children statewide.

Naming six child plaintiffs who have been badly harmed in Massachusetts foster care, the lawsuit (known as Connor B. v. Patrick) charges the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) with violating the constitutional rights of children by routinely placing them in dangerous and unstable situations once removed from their parents’ care and failing to take necessary actions to meet the legal and moral obligation of the state-run child welfare system to ensure the safety and well-being of children in its custody.

According to the children’s complaint, the rate at which children in Massachusetts foster care suffer abuse in state-supervised foster homes and institutions is nearly four times the national standard. DCF further traumatizes children by moving them frequently between foster placements; one-third of children in state foster care get shuffled around to at least five different placements during their time in state custody, according to the complaint. The complaint also points to the state’s decade-long failure to adequately prepare and support families to be successfully reunified with their children in foster care.

“There is absolutely no justification for what Massachusetts is doing to its most vulnerable children. It is robbing them of their right to be protected from abuse and neglect and to grow up in safe and stable homes with loving, permanent families,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “With this class action, Children’s Rights joins advocates throughout the state in seeking a court-enforceable commitment from the state to reform its failing child welfare system and dramatically improve its treatment of the thousands of abused and neglected children who depend on it.”

The lawsuit names six children as plaintiffs to represent the class. They range in age from nine to 15 years old and share a history of harm in DCF custody. They include:

  • Nine-year-old Connor B., who suffered severe sexual abuse as DCF shuffled him around to seven different foster homes over the last three years. Connor now struggles with severe mental, behavioral, and emotional challenges as a result.
  • Adam S., a 15-year-old boy who has spent his entire life since the age of eight bouncing in and out of foster care — and enduring repeated physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his foster parents. Now he is a few years from aging out of the system — and DCF has provided him with no prospects for a permanent family and no preparation for living independently as an adult.
  • Camila R., 13 years old, who was separated from her two sisters and returned to her abusive mother, has lived in at least 11 different placements while in foster care. Even now, DCF continues to deny her vital educational and mental health services.
  • Fifteen-year-old Andre S., who has been legally free for adoption for over 10 years and spent seven of 12 years in the state’s care in a residential facility rather than a foster or relative home. Andre now faces adulthood with no stable family or plan for adequate services from DCF to support him.
  • Seth T., 13 years old, who was bounced around to five different foster placements in just his first year of foster care. Still in foster care after five years, DCF has effectively cut Seth’s ties with his family, managing visits with his brothers only a few times a year and never properly exploring the possibility of placing him with available relatives.
  • Fifteen-year-old Rakeem D., who entered foster care two and a half years ago and was not only immediately separated from his three siblings, but also denied the opportunity to live with relatives who may have been able to care for him. As DCF has bounced Rakeem around to at least eight different foster and group homes, his education and behavioral health has suffered, and he now resides in an institution 50 miles away from his nearest relative.

“We believe it is necessary to file a class action lawsuit because children’s constitutional rights are being violated as a result of the shortcomings of the child welfare system,” said Mary K. Ryan, a partner at Nutter McClennen & FishLLP. “I think most people would be shocked to learn that Massachusetts, which has done so much for the education and health of children, falls in the bottom ten among states on so many measures related to the well-being of children in foster care.”

Citing evidence that DCF and state officials have been aware of serious problems throughout the state-run child welfare system for many years without taking appropriate action to solve them, the child plaintiffs ask the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts to enjoin the state from further violating their constitutional rights and order relief via widespread reforms. Among the failures detailed in their complaint:

  • Children are frequently subjected to abuse or neglect while in foster care. The high rate at which children suffer maltreatment in state custody makes DCF the fourth most harmful child welfare system in the nation in this regard.
  • Children are routinely bounced from one foster home or institution to another at alarming rates. One third of children in foster care have been moved around five or more different foster placements in a single stint in foster care, causing repeated emotional trauma with every move. DCF often aggravates this trauma with the inappropriate practice of shuttling children each night to different temporary “hotline” homes until a longer-term placement becomes available.
  • Families are not provided adequate visitation with their children in foster care or sufficient services and support to successfully bring their children home. In order for children to be safely reunified with their parents after spending time in foster care, parents must have access to vital services to help them overcome their challenges and ample opportunities to visit one another. DCF regularly fails to provide sufficient visitation and services for families, thus placing children at risk of lingering in care longer than necessary or even returning to foster care.
  • Too many children are literally growing up in foster care. Many of the 2,500 children currently waiting to be adopted from DCF foster care are likely to linger in foster care for several years. Among children adopted between 2002 and 2005, more than half waited more than three years before finding permanent, adoptive families.
  • Children are aging out of foster care without permanent families and vital support and resources.Approximately 900 children age out of the state foster care system each year with no permanent family at all, and approximately half of those children have spent three or more years in state custody. Additionally, DCF fails to prepare these children for life as adults, placing them at a higher risk of experiencing homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration than their adopted and reunified peers.

The children’s complaint links these problems to DCF’s failure to effectively manage its workforce, resources, and practices:

  • DCF has failed to recruit and maintain a sufficient number of safe and appropriate family foster homes and other out-of-home placements. The pool of available foster homes has been steadily shrinking over the last several years, and DCF has not done enough to find ways to both recruit and retain licensed foster homes. This serious shortage of placements has caused overcrowding in foster homes and forced excessive moves of children between multiple foster homes.
  • DCF caseworkers are overloaded with unmanageable caseloads. DCF routinely assigns its child welfare workers 22 to 27 families each — far in excess of the Child Welfare League of America’s caseload standard of 12 to 15 children per worker. When workers are so overburdened with large caseloads, they are often too busy to engage with families and develop vital safety plans and services for families and children in foster care.

Over the last 18 months, DCF and state officials have exacerbated these systemic problems by depleting vital resources, including cutting the child welfare workforce, failing to provide promised increases to foster parent maintenance payment rates, reducing funding for essential services for children and families, and decreasing the resources and administrative support necessary to support a full continuum of foster care placements and services.

Additionally, the complaint cites evidence that Massachusetts continues to be one of the worst states in the nation with respect to drawing down funding from the federal government, which provides matching funds for state-managed foster care systems. DCF continues to miss out on millions of dollars in available federal funds to finance the state’s overburdened foster care system.

“While short resources and tight budgets have forced states across the nation to make tough decisions, DCF’s failure to meet the most basic needs of vulnerable children in state foster care cannot be simply blamed on difficult fiscal times,” said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights and lead counsel on the case. “DCF’s management has failed to take the necessary steps to ensure quality case practice and positive outcomes for children. Quite simply, this is a serious management problem that has existed for a long time.”

Related Press

Children’s rights group files suit against state over foster care (Boston Herald, April 15, 2010)

Advocacy group sues state over foster care system (Boston Globe, April 15, 2010)

Group files foster care lawsuit against Mass. (AP via WBZ Radio, April 15, 2010)