Federal Court Rules Massachusetts Child Welfare Case Can Proceed on Behalf of All Children in Foster Care

SPRINGFIELD, MASS. – Less than two months after rejecting Massachusetts officials’ efforts to block abused and neglected children’s access to federal court, U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor today ruled that the lawsuit Children’s Rights and co-counsel filed seeking to reform the state’s badly broken child welfare system may proceed as a class action on behalf of the 8,500 abused and neglected children in state custody.

The class action, known as Connor B. v. Patrick, charges the Massachusetts 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.

“The failings of Massachusetts’ dysfunctional child welfare system endanger the well-being of all children in its custody and they deserve to have their voices heard,” said Sara Bartosz, Children’s Rights senior staff attorney. “Today’s decision is a huge win and a critical step toward finally holding state officials accountable for the care and protection of all of the vulnerable kids in their care.”

State officials had argued that the stories of the six child plaintiffs named in the complaint weren’t representative, or typical, of all children in Massachusetts foster care. However, as today’s ruling (PDF) notes, the children’s complaint lists a number of serious systemic failures that “expose the entire Plaintiff class to an unreasonable risk of harm.”

In addition to the horrific personal experiences six named plaintiffs — which include repeated physical and sexual abuse, frequent moves, separation from siblings, and unnecessary institutionalization — the complaint presented aggregate federal data and reports from the state that show harm to foster kids is far too common:

  • DCF continues to be one of the ten most harmful child welfare systems in the nation with regard to keeping children in state custody safe from abuse and neglect.
  • One third of children in foster care has been moved around to five or more different foster placements in a single stint in foster care — making Massachusetts the eighth worst state in the country in this regard.
  • Approximately one in six children reunified with their families returns to foster care due to further abuse or neglect at home.
  • Children in DCF foster care are not receiving adequate medical, dental, and mental health services.
  • Massachusetts is 13th worst in the country with regard to ensuring children eligible for adoption find permanent families quickly — with more than half waiting over three years.
  • Approximately 900 children age out of the state foster care system each year without permanent families.

Today’s ruling also denies state officials’ attempt to limit the class action, including efforts to have the class represents only children who have been in the foster care system two years or longer — and exclude the rest of children in state custody.

“[This] suggestion fails to appreciate the fact that even children who have spent one week or even on day in DCFcustody are allegedly exposed to an unreasonable risk of harm,” wrote Judge Ponsor in the 29-page decision. “Thus, restricting the Plaintiff class to children who have been in custody for at least two years is plainly improper.”

Furthermore, when considering the experiences of the named plaintiffs, several of those children experienced trauma within their first two years of foster care:

  • Connor B. suffered sexual abuse in foster care and was moved around to five different foster placements in his first year in state custody.
  • Camila R. bounced around between at least 11 foster homes and was deprived of critical therapy and education services in her first two years of her current foster care stay.
  • Seth T. suffered trauma while moving around between five different foster placements in his first 16 months in foster care.

The full text of today’s ruling and more information about Children’s Rights’ effort to reform Massachusetts child welfare can be found at www.childrensrights.org/massachusetts.