Children’s Rights, Rhode Island attorney John Dineen, and international law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP filed this case against the governor of the state of Rhode Island, the secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and the director of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (“DCYF”). The case was filed on behalf of all children who are or will be in the legal custody of DCYF due to a report or suspicion of abuse or neglect, alleging violations of their constitutional rights to substantive due process and familial association, and their statutory rights to adequate case plans and foster care maintenance payments. Among the issues described in the latest Fourth Amended Complaint:
- Children are abused and neglected in foster care and investigations are not completed on time. In federal fiscal year (FFY) 2013, the state reported 71 incidents of maltreatment of children in foster care. For a decade, children in care have been abused or neglected at a rate that is two to four times the federal standard. DCYF monthly data for January 2013 reveals that 52 of the investigations carried by the two principal investigators of maltreatment in care were overdue. The total statewide number of overdue pre- and post-custodial investigations was 419.
- Departing from professional standards, DCYF does not place any limit on the number of children that can be assigned to a caseworker. In June, July, and August of 2015, approximately 96 percent of caseworkers carried caseloads that exceeded the maximum professional standard—and up to 61 percent carried caseloads that were at least 50 percent higher. According to the most recent available federal data, the agency is 9th worst nationwide when it comes to making required monthly visits with kids.
- The agency does not recruit enough foster homes. In Rhode Island, 29 percent of the state’s foster children live in expensive emergency shelters, group homes, and other institutions—a rate more than twice the national average and the third highest percentage in the country. The number of children placed out of state almost doubled from July 2012 to July 2014. As of June 30, 2015, there were 42 children placed in shelters. In fiscal year 2013, DCYF placed 57 percent of children over age 12 in group or institutional settings – the fourth highest percentage in the country.
- DCYF places children in unlicensed homes. Excessive workloads for caseworkers and licensing staff have meant children are placed haphazardly. As of April 2012, for example, 159 children in DCYF’s legal custody—over 13 percent of children in care at the time—were living in unlicensed placements. Seventy three of those children were in 58 unlicensed non-kin homes, while the other 86 children were placed in unlicensed group homes, shelters or private agency placements.
- Children are separated from their siblings and aren’t able to visit family. Both professional standards and DCYF policy emphasize the importance of keeping siblings together when they are taken into foster care. A 2010 case review found that children in Rhode Island foster care visited with their siblings regularly in only 60 percent of the applicable cases, and rated visits with parents and siblings in foster care to be an area needing improvement. DCYF admitted in its 2010 Statewide Assessment that high caseloads are a barrier to ensuring kids visit with their siblings and parents.
- DCYF’s foster care maintenance payments are grossly inadequate. According to DCYF’s website, the standard daily board rates paid to foster parents are between $13.64 and $15.79, depending on the age of the child. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that in 2013, the average middle-income, two-parent family in the urban Northeast spent between $38.38 and $45.32 per day per child, not including health care costs. Even after taking into account adjustments to these amounts paid to foster parents and costs not covered by federal law, the state’s standard board rates are far too low.
The district court declined to address , and instead ordered a trial be held on the claims of the individual named plaintiffs. This trial began November 2013 and the plaintiffs rested their case-in-chief in early January 2014. At that time, the defendants asked the judge to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs had not met their burden of proof. The plaintiffs responded, with powerful evidence that Rhode Island children in foster care are exposed to numerous harms as a result of the defendants’ systemic deficiencies. Nevertheless, the judge ordered that the case be dismissed, denying relief to this vulnerable class of the plaintiff children. Plaintiffs appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals and argued their case on March 4, 2015. On April 21, 2015, the First Circuit threw out the decision dismissing the case, finding that the trial court had “impermissibly tilted the playing field” against the Plaintiff Children and sending the case back down to the district court for further proceedings. Accordingly, Plaintiffs filed their Motion for Class Certification on October 15, 2015 and their Fourth Amended Complaint with a total of five Named Plaintiffs on October 22, 2015.
Lead plaintiff Cassie M., who was separated from her siblings, was in numerous inappropriate foster placements, including approximately one year in the foster home of a woman who had already been flagged by DCYF as needing her license revoked. Her 6-year-old sister, meanwhile, was placed in two shelters for nine months. Cassie was freed for adoption seven years ago, but has bounced around foster homes and group homes and remains in state custody today.Andrew, 9, has been in DCYF custody since he was 4 years old. He has been separated from his younger siblings, had one placement where his foster parent was unable to properly care for him, leading to his hospitalization, and he was sexually abused in group care. Subsequently he began to act out sexually, and DCYF has separated him from younger children, including his sister.Matthew, 11, has been placed in a kinship home with a registered sex offender, sexually abused by a child in another foster home, and separated from his two older siblings.