Federal Judge Allows Rhode Island Class Action to Proceed on Behalf of Abused and Neglected Kids

PROVIDENCE, RI — Rejecting state officials’ efforts to block abused and neglected children’s access to federal court, U.S. District Judge Mary M. Lisi today denied a motion (PDF) to dismiss the federal class action filed by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights seeking broad reform of Rhode Island’s child welfare system on behalf of approximately 2,000 children in foster care.

“This decision is a victory for the thousands of vulnerable children in Rhode Island that have been long ignored by state officials,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Now that the court has rejected the state’s efforts to keep this case from being heard, we can move forward to prove that Rhode Island continues to place the children in foster care at great risk of harm every day and is in great need of court-ordered reform.”

According to today’s decision, abused and neglected children in Rhode Island will finally have their voices heard in federal court and be able to show that state Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) workers have caseloads that are far too high, staff is too often inadequately trained, and the state has too few appropriate foster care placements.

Although four years have passed since Children’s Rights and then-Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston filed the class action in 2007, the vast systemic problems outlined in that complaint remain largely unchanged. Therefore, Children’s Rights has recently sought to file a supplemental complaint (PDF) outlining current troubling statistics about the status of children in state foster care, including the state’s rate of abuse in foster care — which is nearly four times the national standard.

Additionally, while today’s decision dismisses five original named plaintiffs because they have since been adopted, Children’s Rights’ supplemental complaint also asks court to add five new children to the lawsuit. These new proposed named plaintiffs range in age from eight to 16 and share a history of suffering in DCYF foster care. They include:

  • Cassie M., a 14-year-old girl, has been in foster care for the last five years. She has been separated from her sister and forced to move between multiple, inappropriate placements and has spent years in institutions. Despite having been freed for adoption two years ago, she currently languishes in a group home with no hope of a permanent family.
  • Alex and Jared C., eight and ten years old respectively, have been in state custody since 2004, since Alex was only a toddler. These brothers have been moved through at least six difference placements, including two institutions and one foster home where they were both sexually abused. Most recently they have been separated and the state has no plan for either of them to find an adoptive family.
  • Terrence T., a 15-year-old boy, has been in DCYF custody since he was six. Terrence has been separated from all of his brothers and sisters and been shifted from place to place multiple times, including through four institutions where he has lived for at least six years of his life. Today, he suffers from serious mental health issues and lives in an institution.
  • Tracy L., who is nearly 16 years old, has been in state custody for nine years. She has been moved at least 18 times through at least 13 placements, including various residential treatment centers, group homes and shelters. Tracy has also been forced to change schools 11 different times since being in foster care.

The advocates and Alston filed the class action, then known as Sam and Tony M. v. Carcieri, in June 2007seeking widespread reforms on behalf of all abused and neglected children in DCYF custody. The children’s complaint alleged that the state violates their rights under the constitution and federal law by failing to provide them with basic safety, protection, and care — often resulting in serious harm.

In April 2009, the federal court dismissed the case on narrow, technical grounds. Children’s Rights successfully appealed the decision in June 2010, reinstating the case. The state resubmitted a motion to dismiss in November 2010 — ultimately resulting in today’s decision denying that motion and allowing the case to proceed.

In addition to Alston and Children’s Rights, Jared Bobrow of the international law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and Rhode Island attorney John Dineen serve as co-counsel on the case.

For more information about Children’s Rights’ campaign to reform the Rhode Island child welfare system, including the full text of the 2007 complaint, this month’s supplemental complaint, and today’s decision, please visit www.childrensrights.org/rhodeisland.

Related Media

Federal judge rules that watchdog suit over state’s foster care system may go ahead (AP-Providence, July 21, 2011)