Federal Judge Allows Rhode Island Class Action to Proceed on Behalf of Abused and Neglected Kids

PROVIDENCE, RI — Rejecting state officials’ efforts to block abused and neglected children’s access to federal court, U.S. District Judge Mary M. Lisi today (PDF) to dismiss the federal class action filed by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights seeking broad reform of Rhode Island’s child welfare system on behalf of approximately 2,000 children in foster care.

“This decision is a victory for the thousands of vulnerable children in Rhode Island that have been long ignored by state officials,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Now that the court has rejected the state’s efforts to keep this case from being heard, we can move forward to prove that Rhode Island continues to place the children in foster care at great risk of harm every day and is in great need of court-ordered reform.”

According to today’s decision, abused and neglected children in Rhode Island will finally have their voices heard in federal court and be able to show that state Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) workers have caseloads that are far too high, staff is too often inadequately trained, and the state has too few appropriate foster care placements.

Although four years have passed since Children’s Rights and then-Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston in 2007, the vast systemic problems outlined in that complaint remain largely unchanged. Therefore, Children’s Rights has recently sought to file a supplemental complaint (PDF) outlining current troubling statistics about the status of children in state foster care, including the state’s rate of abuse in foster care — which is nearly four times the national standard.

Additionally, while today’s decision dismisses five original named plaintiffs because they have since been adopted, Children’s Rights’ supplemental complaint also asks court to add five new children to the lawsuit. These new proposed named plaintiffs range in age from eight to 16 and share a history of suffering in DCYF foster care. They include:

The advocates and Alston filed the class action, then known as Sam and Tony M. v. Carcieri, in June 2007seeking widespread reforms on behalf of all abused and neglected children in DCYF custody. 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.

In April 2009, the federal court dismissed the case on narrow, technical grounds. Children’s Rights successfully appealed the decision in June 2010, reinstating the case. The state resubmitted a motion to dismiss in November 2010 — ultimately resulting in today’s decision denying that motion and allowing the case to proceed.

In addition to Alston and Children’s Rights, Jared Bobrow 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, this month’s supplemental complaint, and today’s decision, please visit www.childrensrights.org/rhodeisland.

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Federal judge rules that watchdog suit over state’s foster care system may go ahead (AP-Providence, July 21, 2011)