Huge Victory for Rhode Island Foster Kids as Federal Appeals Court Reinstates Class Action Seeking Sweeping Reforms

BOSTON, MA. – Children in the custody of Rhode Island’s failing foster care system won a huge victory today as a federal appeals court reinstated a federal class action lawsuit brought against the state on the children’s behalf by Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston and the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, seeking sweeping child welfare reforms.

Today’s decision (PDF) by the First Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a lower court’s dismissal of the case in April 2009 on the grounds that the adults chosen to serve as the children’s legal representatives (or “Next Friends”) in the reform class action were inadequate because they did not have current relationships with the children, and that only the law guardians (or “guardians ad litem”) appointed to represent them in family court could bring claims against the state on their behalf.

Noting that “foster care children are often unable to forge significant relationships with the adults that are entrusted to protect the children’s interest,” the Court of Appeals reinstated the children’s complaint and allowed the current Next Friends to proceed as representatives of the children named as plaintiffs in the case. Wrote the court: “Important social interests are advanced by allowing minors access to a judicial forum to vindicate their constitutional rights through a Next Friend that the court … particularly where, as here, the minors see relief for alleged violations of the guardian’s duty to protect them.”

“The Court of Appeals has thrown open the doors that the district court had closed to thousands of children whose lives and well-being continue even now to be imperiled by the failings of the Rhode Island child welfare system,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights. “The court has granted them the access they deserve to present their claims in federal court and seek relief for the harms they have suffered in Rhode Island’s custody.”

The advocates filed the class action, known as Sam and Tony M. v. Carcieri, in June 2007, seeking widespread reforms on behalf of the approximately 3,000 abused and neglected children dependent on the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF). 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 addition to the Rhode Island Child Advocate and Children’s Rights, Vernon Winters 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 and today’s appeal, please visit www.childrensrights.org/rhodeisland.