Massachusetts Child Welfare Reform Case to Proceed as Foster Youth Win Major Decision

swingsetSPRINGFIELD, MASS. – Rejecting state officials’ efforts to block abused and neglected children’s access to federal court, U.S.District Judge Michael A. Ponsor today denied a motion to dismiss the federal class action filed by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights and Boston law firm Nutter McClennen & FishLLP seeking broad reform on behalf of approximately 8,500 children in foster care.

The lawsuit, known as Connor B. v. Patrick, named six child plaintiffs who have been badly harmed in Massachusetts foster care and 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 ensure the safety and well-being of children in its custody.

“The [state’s] arguments are unpersuasive,” wrote Judge Ponsor in today’s decision (PDF). “Assuming all of the Plaintiffs’ allegations to be true, as the court must at this stage, it is at least arguably clear that the harms suffered by children in DCF custody are fairly traceable to these systemic failures within DCF.

“This is a huge victory for the thousands of children whose lives and well-being continue to be endangered every day by dysfunctional child welfare systems in Massachusetts and across the nation,” said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights and lead counsel on the case. “This court has ruled in no uncertain terms that children in foster care deserve to have their voices heard and their constitutional rights protected.”

The court further denied the state’s efforts to remove Governor Deval Patrick from the class action, noting evidence that Governor Patrick has had “direct involvement in the ongoing maintenance of the state child welfare system,” and that “the fact that on a daily basis Defendant Patrick plays a somewhat detached, supervisory role is inconsequential.”

According to the children’s complaint, filed in March 2010, DCF is among the 10 worst states in the nation with regard to keeping children in state custody safe from abuse and neglect. One third of children in foster care have been moved around to five or more different foster placements in a single stint in foster care. Approximately one in six children reunified with their families returns to foster care due to further abuse or neglect at home.

Additionally, Massachusetts is the thirteenth worst in the country with regard to ensuring children eligible for adoption find permanent families quickly — with more than half waiting over three years and about 900 children aging out of foster care each year, according to the complaint.

Unresolved in today’s ruling is a motion on behalf of the children to allow their case to proceed as a class action encompassing all children in the custody of DCF; Judge Ponsor will schedule a date to hear further arguments on that issue.

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