MA Department of Children and Families Failed to Comply with National Standards, State and Federal Requirements and its Own Internal Policies, Federal Judge Finds

Judge: ‘The state defendants today avoid the litigation bullet but the stage is set’ for future action

(New York, NY) — A federal judge who has ruled that the failings of Massachusetts’ child welfare system did not warrant injunctive relief found in a recently issued opinion that the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) “has failed not only to comport with national standards of care and state and federal requirements but also to comply with its own internal policies” for protecting and supporting children in foster care.

The opinion (PDF) contained factual findings from the partial trial in the case of Connor B. v. Patrick. The lawsuit, filed by national advocacy group Children’s Rights and Boston law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP, alleged thatDCF violates the constitutional rights of children in state care by placing them in dangerous and unstable situations.U.S. District Judge William Young wrote that the responsibility for fixing DCF ultimately lies with Massachusetts lawmakers, who have the power to appropriate monies for an underfunded system.

“When next you bemoan your tax burden, remember that, at that moment, somewhere in Massachusetts there is a youngster who has just been taken from her parents’ home,” wrote Judge Young. “She is confused, inexpressibly lonely, homesick, and desperately afraid. Because of Massachusetts’ penury, her future is murkier than in most places in America. Do you care?”

Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, responded to the opinion: “As made abundantly clear in Judge Young’s written ruling, too many kids in DCF foster care fare poorly because of well-identified and long-standing systemic failings. The numerous critical findings made by the court are not surprising, given the substantial evidence we presented at trial.”

The Court noted a well-documented “laundry list of problems plaguing DCF” in many areas, including maltreatment in care, the inappropriate placement of children, ensuring stability in foster care placements, finding kids permanent families, providing educational and medical services and caseload management and training. According to the decision, the Court “is particularly troubled by the way DCF manipulates and presents relative performance data” in internally distributed scorecards.

Still, Judge Young held that in alleging violations of substantive due process, the Plaintiffs had to climb “a virtually unscalable peak.”

“We brought this lawsuit on behalf of children in foster care because of several well known failings within DCF,” said Lowry. “These issues existed for years without receiving focused attention and prompt action, and far too many children suffered harm as a result. We will closely examine the impossibly high hurdle that was set for Plaintiffs, and other aspects of the findings. The decision is right on the facts but it is unclear if it is right on the law.”

Judge Young himself pointed to the possibility of further legal action against the state, noting the “serendipitous nature” of $12 million dollars that recently was appropriated to raise foster care payments to families. If these rates “fall substantially below USDA guidelines in the coming months or years, the Plaintiffs are free to resume the pursuit of what will be deemed by this Court to be a revived and actionable claim,” he wrote.

“This is a dispiriting opinion to write,” he concluded. “Nothing is really resolved. The state defendants today avoid the litigation bullet but the stage is set for further costly litigation.”

“In the course of defending the lawsuit, DCF claimed to have taken steps to address some of these failings and acknowledged the need to address others,” said Lowry. “Taking steps is not the same as fixing the flaws. Given its history of making plans without implementing them, we must remain skeptical that, absent court-ordered reform, DCFwill make good on its promises to repair the system. The state’s children need and deserve a far better support system.”