Rhode Island Kids’ Right to Challenge Poor Foster Care Treatment in Federal Court Well-Established, Advocates Say

BOSTON, MA — Abused and neglected children in the custody of the dysfunctional Rhode Island child welfare system have a well-established right to challenge their poor treatment in federal court, say state and national child welfare advocates seeking to reinstate a lawsuit brought on the children’s behalf to reform the system — and the state has failed to provide a legal rationale supporting the case’s dismissal.

In their final brief (PDF) to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston in support of their appeal, Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston and the national child advocacy organization Children’s Rights rejected the state’s arguments in recent filings that the lower court judge was correct to dismiss the case in April 2009 because the adults chosen to stand in for the seven children named as plaintiffs in the case did not have ongoing relationships with the children.

They also dismissed as “histrionic” the state’s charges that their campaign to reform the Rhode Island system represents a challenge to the authority of the state Family Court.

“We seek the reform of a child welfare system that has badly harmed the seven children in whose names we have brought this case, and thousands more like them who continue to suffer as a result of failures at every level of the Rhode Island child welfare system,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights. “This is not a challenge to the Family Court or the attorneys chosen to represent the children in that setting, but an effort to improve all aspects of the system in which the Family Court operates, and to produce dramatically better results for all of the children and families who depend on the system.”

The Rhode Island Child Advocate not only has the explicit statutory authority to bring lawsuits on behalf of the plaintiff children, the advocates write in today’s brief, but also has joined with counsel from within and outside the state who together bring vast experience in successfully improving the lives of children through actions like this one.

Furthermore, they write, the children have a right to use the federal court to vindicate their constitutional right to be free from harm in state custody. “The lower court failed to provide any proper basis for refusing to hear their claims and its decision should be reversed.”

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.

The district court dismissed the case in April 2009, ruling that the adults serving as the children’s legal representatives, or “Next Friends,” were inadequate because they were not the children’s family court law guardians and did not have current relationships with the children.

Alston and Children’s Rights appealed that decision in August 2009, and a broad national coalition of 15 children’s legal aid organizations and child welfare experts and the American Civil Liberties Union have signed on in support of their appeal.

The child advocates said that the district court had based its decision to throw out the children’s case upon multiple erroneous readings of the law, and the state had not supplied any acceptable legal rationale to justify the court’s dismissal. “Like fitting a square peg in a round hole, defendants were unable to contort the lower court’s flawed opinion into one which establishes the legal and factual grounds necessary to dismiss the children’s federal civil rights claims on the basis of allegedly inadequate next friends,” they wrote.

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 brief, please visit www.childrensrights.org/rhodeisland.