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Broad National Coalition of Child Welfare Advocates & Experts Lines Up in Support of Rhode Island Reform Class Action

BOSTON, MA — A Rhode Island district court’s decision to dismiss a class action seeking the reform of the state’s child welfare system is “at odds with 30 years of progress in the field of child welfare law,” says a (PDF) filed today in a federal appeals court by 15 children’s legal aid organizations, law school clinics, and child advocacy experts from across the country.

A separate brief (PDF) filed yesterday by the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research at the University of Pennsylvania also supports the class action, asserting that the district court’s rationale for dismissing the case “ignores the reality of foster children’s lives, to their detriment.”

The class action was filed by Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston, Children’s Rights, and local and national co-counsel 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 only the law guardians appointed to represent the children in family court could serve as their legal representatives, or “next friends,” in federal court, and that the adults chosen to serve as the children’s next friends in the reform class action were inadequate because they did not have current relationships with the children.

The children’s attorneys appealed that decision to the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on Monday, asserting that 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.

The briefs filed yesterday and today bolster both claims. On behalf of the National Association of Counsel for Children and 14 other children’s legal aid organizations and child welfare law experts who have signed on as amici curiae (“friends of the court”), Suffolk University Professor of Law Erik S. Pitchal writes that the law guardians appointed to represent children in family court face numerous challenges — including high caseloads, low compensation, and political and legal constraints — that limit their ability to effectively advocate for children in matters beyond the dependency hearings that are their primary responsibility, such as the Rhode Island reform class action.

“Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that these lawyers work under such crushing conditions that they are often barely able to provide effective representation to all their clients within dependency proceedings, let alone have the time to pursue ancillary matters with much vigor,” the brief says.

The other brief, authored by attorneys for Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP on behalf of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research at the University of Pennsylvania, cites a multitude of research findings demonstrating that children in foster care are often unable to develop the kind of relationships the district court ruled are required of the adults who would stand in for them in federal court.

According to the brief, the very act of moving children multiple times between different foster homes, institutions, and other placements prevents children from maintaining long-term relationships. This is compounded, the brief says, by the trauma children experience when they are abused and neglected, taken away from their families, and, in some cases, maltreated again in foster care — all of which can result in attachment disorders and other conditions that further limit their ability to developing the “significant and sustained relationships” the district court said they must have with their next friends.

Children in Rhode Island foster care can expect to be moved nearly three times over a span of less than three years, the brief’s authors note. DCYF places children in institutional settings at a rate that far exceeds the national average, and some of the children named as plaintiffs in the reform class action have both suffered further abuse and neglect in state custody and developed severe attachment disorders as a result.

“The ‘significant’ relationship that the district court would require of the next friends is simply not viable in the context of foster children, particularly for foster children who rely on state foster care systems that are deficient in the ways in which the plaintiff children here allege,” the brief’s authors write.

Children’s Rights officials said both briefs emphasize the impossible position the district court’s ruling creates for children dependent on Rhode Island’s failing child welfare system.

“These children are trapped in a system that has failed to protect them, damaged their health and well-being, and prevented them from maintaining exactly the kind of relationships the district court says they must have with anyone who would serve as their legal representatives in seeking help from the federal court,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights. “That’s the same as saying they cannot seek help at all.”

For more information about Children’s Rights’ campaign to reform the Rhode Island child welfare system, including the full text of the 2007 complaint, the appeal, and the briefs filed this week, please visit www.childrensrights.org/rhodeisland.