Children’s Rights, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed A.A. v. Buckner against the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) on behalf of children in foster care living with mental health impairments who are held in psychiatric residential treatment facilities (PRTFs)—a population that is disproportionately Black youth. The case targets the state’s failure to place children in the least restrictive environment where they can access support while enjoying the same activities as peers and thrive into adulthood. Instead, they are often shuffled from one facility to another, further isolating them from their families and communities.
The complaint alleges that DHR, the agency responsible for administering the child welfare system in Alabama, is violating federal law, placing children in these highly rigid and often dangerous settings instead of meeting their mental health needs in a loving home or community-based setting. Children segregated into these institutional settings are less likely to achieve permanency and are more likely to age out of the foster care system without the appropriate community-based care to facilitate a successful transition to adulthood.
In Alabama and across the U.S., Black youth are more likely to be removed from their communities and placed in these facilities. 41% of Black children in foster care with a diagnosed emotional disturbance are placed in residential facilities compared to 31.2% of their non-Black peers with an emotional disturbance.
The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring DHR to immediately change its policies and practices to ensure that no foster child is unnecessarily placed in these draconian facilities.
A.A. is a 17-year-old African American female. Except for very brief placements when she first entered care, she has been confined to and shuffled between three PRTFs for the five years she has been in DHR custody. In her current placement, she was subjected to emotionally abusive disciplinary practices for a year, causing significant emotional pain and distress. A.A. wants to be a cheerleader and learn the piano.
C.C. is a 14-year-old African American male. He has spent the last five years in PRTFs. Despite the facility’s recommendation and several notices to DHR for a less restrictive placement, and family willing to foster him, he remains in the facility. C.C. wishes to play on a sports team, and go to concerts and the movies.
Both A.A. and C.C. live with a mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. They are currently placed in a PRTF, despite being eligible for a community-based placement. Like other children placed in restrictive PRTFs, A.A. and C.C. are isolated and unable to live normal teenage lives in a family setting. They are restricted from attending school in the community or engaging in any community-based hobbies or extracurricular activities.