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:

  • David, a 15-year-old boy who has remained in DCYF’s custody since the age of two. As a toddler, David was placed in foster care in the home of Mary Melvin, a foster parent for 20 years who has twice been named Rhode Island Foster Mother of the Year. Despite a strong bond between David and Ms. Melvin — he called her “Mom” and she refers to him as a member of her family — DCYF removed David from Mary’s home and shuffled him for the ensuing decade through a series of institutions including a shelter, a psychiatric hospital, and a residential treatment center where he was sexually abused by a roommate. DCYF deemed David “too damaged for adoption” in 2005; Ms. Melvin is among the legal representatives deemed inadequate by the district court.
  • Caesar, now almost eight years old, whom DCYF has bounced around to several different foster homes over seven years during which he has been exposed to drug use and physical abuse and placed in one unlicensed foster home that DCYF had itself deemed unfit and unsuitable. In Family Court, Caesar has been represented by at least six different law guardians; the district court, in dismissing the class action brought in Caesar’s name, contended that these law guardians were the only appropriate legal representatives for Caesar, and that the school psychologist who worked intensively with Caesar three to four times weekly over the course of the 2006-2007 school year was not an adequate representative.
  • Sam and Tony, brothers who were taken into state foster care at age four and infancy respectively in 1999 and suffered extreme abuse over the next five years in DCYF’s custody — burned with a cigarette in a foster home, sexually assaulted, verbally threatened. DCYF returned the boys to their mother three separate times in spite of 14 reports that she was incapable of safely parenting them, eight of which DCYF confirmed. Since December 2000, Sam and Tony have been represented by at least six different family court law guardians.

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 www.childrensrights.org/rhodeisland.

Related Press

Advocate Seeks to Revive RI Foster Care Lawsuit (AP/Boston Globe, August 11, 2009)