Advocates Appeal Rhode Island Decision Barring Children from Seeking Child Welfare Reform in Federal Court

BOSTON, MA — Asserting that a federal court in Rhode Island erroneously blocked abused and neglected children’s access to the court in dismissing a class action brought on their behalf to reform the state’s failing child welfare system, Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston, the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, and local and national co-counsel today appealed the decision to the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

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 were inadequate because they were not the children’s family court law guardians and did not have current relationships with the children.

But Alston and Children’s Rights say there is no legal reason why representatives other than the children’s family court law guardians cannot bring the federal case on their behalf — and that the very failures at DCYF that the class action seeks to correct are responsible for preventing the children from maintaining current relationships with other adults who could represent their interests in court. Moreover, they say, the court erroneously relied upon a rule in dismissing the case that was designed to ensure children’s access to the courts.

“Instead of closing the courthouse doors to these children, the district court could have appointed other legal representatives for them,” said Alston. “We are simply asking the appeals court to give the children the opportunity to present their case that the district court has denied them.”

Said Susan Lambiasse, associate director of Children’s Rights: “These are children who have suffered terrible neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and other injustices in DCYF’s custody for years. The court itself describes their stories as heartbreaking, and yet it has cut off the only avenue through which they could bring their claims before the federal court. We believe this was a decision made in error, and we believe it should be reversed.”

Among the children on whose behalf Alston and Children’s Rights brought the class action are:

The class action brought against Rhode Island on the children’s behalf charges DCYF with moving children excessively between unstable foster homes, returning them to their parents unsafely, and leaving them to languish for years in foster care without permanent homes. DCYF also institutionalizes young children in foster care at more than double the national rate, and recorded the single highest rate in the nation of children suffering abuse or neglect in its custody in five of the six years from 2000 through 2005.

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 appeal, please visit

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