Citing Widespread Abuse of Kids in Foster Care and Seeking Sweeping Reforms, Advocates Sue Massachusetts Governor

SPRINGFIELD & BOSTON, MA — Citing one of the nation’s highest rates of abuse of children in foster care and other persistent and severe problems throughout the Massachusetts child welfare system, the national advocacy group Children’s Rights and Boston law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP — with the support of advocates and families throughout the state — today filed a class action in federal court seeking broad reform on behalf of 8,500 abused and neglected children statewide.

Naming six child plaintiffs who have been badly harmed in Massachusetts foster care, the lawsuit (known as Connor B. v. Patrick) charges the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) with violating the constitutional rights of children by routinely placing them in dangerous and unstable situations once removed from their parents’ care and failing to take necessary actions to meet the legal and moral obligation of the state-run child welfare system to ensure the safety and well-being of children in its custody.

According to the children’s complaint, the rate at which children in Massachusetts foster care suffer abuse in state-supervised foster homes and institutions is nearly four times the national standard. DCF further traumatizes children by moving them frequently between foster placements; one-third of children in state foster care get shuffled around to at least five different placements during their time in state custody, according to the complaint. The complaint also points to the state’s decade-long failure to adequately prepare and support families to be successfully reunified with their children in foster care.

“There is absolutely no justification for what Massachusetts is doing to its most vulnerable children. It is robbing them of their right to be protected from abuse and neglect and to grow up in safe and stable homes with loving, permanent families,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “With this class action, Children’s Rights joins advocates throughout the state in seeking a court-enforceable commitment from the state to reform its failing child welfare system and dramatically improve its treatment of the thousands of abused and neglected children who depend on it.”

The lawsuit names six children as plaintiffs to represent the class. They range in age from nine to 15 years old and share a history of harm in DCF custody. They include:

“We believe it is necessary to file a class action lawsuit because children’s constitutional rights are being violated as a result of the shortcomings of the child welfare system,” said Mary K. Ryan, a partner at Nutter McClennen & FishLLP. “I think most people would be shocked to learn that Massachusetts, which has done so much for the education and health of children, falls in the bottom ten among states on so many measures related to the well-being of children in foster care.”

Citing evidence that DCF and state officials have been aware of serious problems throughout the state-run child welfare system for many years without taking appropriate action to solve them, the child plaintiffs ask the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts to enjoin the state from further violating their constitutional rights and order relief via widespread reforms. Among the failures detailed in their complaint:

The children’s complaint links these problems to DCF’s failure to effectively manage its workforce, resources, and practices:

Over the last 18 months, DCF and state officials have exacerbated these systemic problems by depleting vital resources, including cutting the child welfare workforce, failing to provide promised increases to foster parent maintenance payment rates, reducing funding for essential services for children and families, and decreasing the resources and administrative support necessary to support a full continuum of foster care placements and services.

Additionally, the complaint cites evidence that Massachusetts continues to be one of the worst states in the nation with respect to drawing down funding from the federal government, which provides matching funds for state-managed foster care systems. DCF continues to miss out on millions of dollars in available federal funds to finance the state’s overburdened foster care system.

“While short resources and tight budgets have forced states across the nation to make tough decisions, DCF’s failure to meet the most basic needs of vulnerable children in state foster care cannot be simply blamed on difficult fiscal times,” said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights and lead counsel on the case. “DCF’s management has failed to take the necessary steps to ensure quality case practice and positive outcomes for children. Quite simply, this is a serious management problem that has existed for a long time.”

Related Press

Children’s rights group files suit against state over foster care (Boston Herald, April 15, 2010)

Advocacy group sues state over foster care system (Boston Globe, April 15, 2010)

Group files foster care lawsuit against Mass. (AP via WBZ Radio, April 15, 2010)