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Rhode Island has Real Child Advocate

July 2, 2007 permalink

In January 2005 Rhode Island governor Donald L Carcieri appointed Jametta O Alston to be the state's child advocate press release. Last Thursday she filed a suit alleging that children are being abused and killed in foster care. Contrast that to Ontario, where the child advocate interviews children and urges hiring more foster parents, all while ignoring the 83 children who died last year under CAS watch.



Governor vows to 'get to the bottom' of foster care lawsuit

PROVIDENCE, R.I. --Gov. Don Carcieri vowed Monday to "get to the bottom" of allegations contained in a federal lawsuit that the state's foster care system is so broken that children have been placed back with foster parents who abused them, shuttled between more than a dozen homes or even killed in foster care.

"Are the allegations in fact true? Do we have any failings in terms of procedure or policy? Do we have possibly some bad decisions being made?" Carcieri said after a meeting with state child advocate Jametta Alston, who filed the lawsuit Thursday. "I don't know any of that right now, but we're going to get to the bottom of it."

Alston brought the lawsuit, which is seeking class action status, on behalf of the 3,000 children currently in Rhode Island's foster care system. The lawsuit cites federal data that show Rhode Island had the nation's highest rate of abuse or neglect of foster care children in five of the six years between 2000 and 2005.

"If we have youngsters that are being abused that are in our care ... I want it to stop now, and I want to get to the bottom of it," Carcieri said.

Ten children were identified with pseudonyms in the complaint, which included disturbing allegations about their cases and the foster care system.

For instance, the suit says the Department of Children, Youth and Families returned two brothers to their parents even though one of the boys had reported being sexually abused by his father. The month after they were returned, the complaint says, one boy had a bruise around his eye and one had a large mark on his neck.

The lawsuit says one 5-year-old boy was sexually assaulted in his foster home, while another child spent time in more than 14 different homes and institutions -- including one where he was allegedly sexually abused by a roommate.

Patricia Martinez, the director of the department -- which was sued along with the governor -- said she could not comment on any of the alleged abuse cases since her staff was still in the early stages of investigating them. But she said she was troubled by the allegations.

"If we find that we failed a system, that a provider failed, then you bet that we will take corrective actions," Martinez said.

Some of the cases are already several years old, so some of the staff members involved in these cases may no longer be associated with the department, Martinez said.

The suit says caseworkers are so overburdened that children might not get a visit from them for months and contends that children languish for long periods of time in the foster care system because the department is slow in finding them permanent adoptive homes.

Carcieri said Monday that Alston had given him the full names of the children cited in the lawsuit. He said he would be briefed Tuesday by DCYF about their cases and that it was possible that caseworkers would be fired if they knew about problems but did not fix them.

Problems at the department came to the public's attention after 3-year-old T.J. Wright died in foster care in 2004. His aunt and her live-in boyfriend have pleaded not guilty to beating him to death. Their cases have not reached trial.

Carcieri and Alston said they did not discuss specifics of the lawsuit during their conversation but instead focused on ways to improve communication. The governor said he had not been aware of the alleged abuse until he read news accounts of the lawsuit.

Lisa Guillette, executive director of the Rhode Island Foster Parents Association, said it's critical that caseworkers have manageable workloads since they're relied upon to identify problems.

"The stories of the plaintiffs demonstrate systemic failure in a lot of ways -- lack of oversight, lack of adequate support for the children and the placements that are serving them," Guillette said.

Source: Boston Globe

Addendum: Here is a copy of the complaint (pdf).

Addendum: The suit came to an end on April 29, 2009. Children's Rights Inc had a hand in creating this lawsuit, though they were not in the headlines when it started.



Child advocate’s suit over DCYF care dismissed

01:00 AM EDT on Friday, May 1, 2009, By Katie Mulvaney, Journal Staff Writer

Jametta O Alston

PROVIDENCE — A federal judge has dismissed a sweeping lawsuit that alleged widespread abuse of the children in Department of Children, Youth and Families care, saying the state’s child advocate, who brought the suit on behalf of 10 children, had no standing in the case.

Senior U.S. District Judge Ronald R. Lagueux ruled Wednesday that Child Advocate Jametta O. Alston and others who backed the suit had no authority to proceed because the children they claimed to represent are already in the jurisdiction of the state Family Court, where their guardians had been appointed.

Alston and the child-advocacy organization, Children’s Rights, pursued the suit in June 2007 on behalf of the 3,000 children now in state custody, with the aim to overhaul Rhode Island’s entire foster-care system. The suit alleged children in DCYF care were being molested, beaten and, in one high-profile case, killed. Her suit claimed staff faced excessive caseloads and that too many children were being placed in institutions and group homes, or being reunited with abusive parents.

The suit named Governor Carcieri, Jane Hayward, former secretary of the Office of Health and Human Services, and DCYF Director Patricia Martinez as defendants, and charged that the child-welfare system is underfunded, understaffed and mismanaged.

The state asked that the case be dismissed in arguments before Lagueux in January 2008. Lawyers questioned the remedy sought — namely that Alston wanted the court to take control of the DCYF. They argued the case belonged in Family Court, not federal court.

Governor Carcieri, who appointed Alston, praised the decision. “We are pleased with the ruling as we can now concentrate our time and resources on continuous enhancements to the state’s child-welfare system,” Carcieri said in a news release.

The DCYF has worked diligently in the past few years on improvements that have reduced caseloads and the number of children in residential placements, as well as psychiatric hospitalizations, he said.

Alston planned to appeal, saying the ruling leaves in place a system where some children are languishing and not getting needed services. “I still believe children are suffering in our system,” Alston said.

Recent changes involve early intervention, to keep children out of foster care, but do not guarantee well-trained staff and manageable caseloads, she said.

Lagueux’s decision rested on Alston’s ability to bring suit for the 10 children named. A minor may only bring suit when represented by a “next friend” or guardian appointed by the court. Lagueux questioned the three people acting as “next friends” for the children in the case, saying their relationships with the children were minimal or nonexistent.

One “next friend” had been a foster mother for one child from 1996 to 1998, but had not seen the boy in 10 years. Another knew one boy from her time working as a psychologist for his kindergarten class; she had not seen him since June 2007, Lagueux wrote.

The remaining eight children — three of whom are no longer in DCYF care — were to be represented by an associate professor of sociology at Brown University who had never met them, Lagueux said.

Lagueux said he was reluctant to appoint those individuals because the children already have court-appointed advocates who are representing their interests in cases in state Family Court. The court, he said, is hesitant to find that the “next friends” knew the children well enough to make the decision to prosecute the case on their behalf. It would impose a burden on the children that would likely require them to testify about abuse they had suffered at their own families’ hands, he said.

THE CHILDREN come from five families and range from 2 to 16 years in age, according to Lagueux’s ruling. They include “David T.,” who is institutionalized after being shuffled between shelters, foster homes and mental hospitals from age 2. He is now deemed “too damaged” for adoption.

“Sam” and “Tony M.” entered the state foster system when one was 4 years old and the other an infant. They were allowed to return home, where they suffered brutal physical and sexual abuse. Both boys are now institutionalized and separated.

Lagueux noted that Alston had not been involved in their Family Court cases.

Alston said yesterday that she had chosen the 10 children because their experiences were indicative of rampant problems in the state’s foster-care system. Lagueux’s decision, she said, does not address the failings the suit is trying to stop.

“It only further delays getting relief for these children who so desperately need the assistance of the court,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, Children’s Rights’ executive director.

Typically, a judge would give a party an opportunity to select another “next friend,” not dismiss the case, she said. “He simply closed the courtroom doors on these children.”

Further, Lowry said, state law empowers Alston to bring suit on the children’s behalf. The child advocate’s stated mission is to protect the legal rights of children in state care and to promote policies and practices that ensure their safety.

Children’s Rights has filed class-action lawsuits over child-welfare systems in 14 other states, winning court-ordered improvements in 9 states and Washington, D.C.

DCYF officials said they will continue to strive for improvements. “DCYF is committed to provide the highest level of services to children and their families, and these many achievements could not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the DCYF staff, providers and community partners,” said Patricia Martinez, director of DCYF in a news release.

Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, whose lawyers helped argue the state’s case, stopped short of praising Lagueux’s opinion.

“In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court must accept as true the plaintiffs’ version of the facts as stated in their complaint. …” Lynch said. “Although we can all agree that our state must do a better job of caring for the children in its custody, it would have been the wrong approach to ask the federal court to assume control of Rhode Island’s child-welfare and foster-care systems.”

Source: Providence Journal

Five years after its beginning, Jametta Alston has withdrawn from the suit's afterlife.



Former R.I. child advocate Jametta Alston withdraws from suit against DCYF

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Jametta O. Alston, the state's former child advocate, has withdrawn as co-counsel in a class-action lawsuit against the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families alleging widespread abuse of neglect of children in state foster care.

Jametta Alston

Alston, who filed the suit in 2007 with the New York advocacy group Children's Rights, said Wednesday that she is studying to be a minister in Andover, Mass., and her class schedule would interfere with her ability to attend hearings on the case. Alston said she will be available to provide any assistance to the other lawyers handling the case, which is moving forward in U.S. District Court.

Alston's successor, Regina Marie Costa, is not a party to the lawsuit.

Source: Providence Journal

Case dismissed.



Federal judge dismisses lawsuit against R.I. over foster care

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A lawsuit that alleged systemic deficiencies in Rhode Island’s child-welfare system, and accused the state of harming two named plaintiffs and failing thousands of other children, was tossed out of U.S. District Court, Providence, on Wednesday.

In a 108-page decision, U.S. District Judge Mary M. Lisi granted a motion to dismiss the case, which defense lawyers had filed on behalf of the defendants, including Governor Chafee and others sued as representatives of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The defense had filed the motion in the aftermath of a 16-day trial, following more than six years of litigation brought by the plaintiffs with support from Children’s Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group.

The group’s lawsuit, filed in 2007, accused DCYF of violating certain constitutional and statutory rights afforded to all foster children under federal law.

The agency, the plaintiffs alleged, had failed to provide adequate foster maintenance payments and mandated levels of care and it hadn’t addressed high levels of “maltreatment.”

Those deficiencies, and others, had failed more than 1,800 children over the past six years, according to the lawsuit.

But the plaintiffs’ lawyers did not present testimony on any specific cases beyond the experiences of the two plaintiffs identified as Cassie, who was 17 at the time of the trial, and Danny, who was 11.

Lisi, who heard testimony in late 2013 and early 2014, found there was “nothing to suggest” that DCYF’s foster care harmed either one of them.

“…a review of the circumstances of Danny’s and Cassie’s history, placements, treatments, and services,” says Lisi’s decision, “does not support the … plaintiffs’ claims that DCYF’s acts or omissions caused any harm to either Danny or Cassie, that DCYF subjected them to unreasonable risks, or that it deprived them of their constitutional rights.”

One of the many ways that the state had failed Danny and Cassie involved their exposure to siblings in foster care, according to the suit.

Case files, they alleged, showed no documented visits between Danny and his brother between September 2006 and October 2007. The suit alleged that Cassie hadn’t been reunited with her sister after the two girls were placed in custody in separate homes.

But Lisi found that “none of the evidence presented during trial … supports” the contention that the two plaintiffs’ difficulties were “solely, if at all, attributable” to their experience in foster care.

The plaintiffs also alleged that DCYF had not properly adjusted “basic foster care maintenance rates” — payments to cover food, clothing, shelter, and other reasonable costs. The rates have not been increased in more than a decade, even to adjust for inflation, say the lawyers.

But Lisi was not convinced by the testimony presented at trial. The calculations did not reflect the principle of economies of scale, says her decision.

Ira Lustbader, the associate director of Children’s Rights and one of the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs, said that the organization believes “the court has erred in its ruling.”

“It has denied abused-and-neglected kids any relief from one of the country’s most dangerous and broken foster care systems,” Lustbader said.

Children’s Rights is considering its options for appeal, said Lustbader.

He said his description of the system as dangerous is based on child maltreatment, reliance on institutions rather than family foster homes, heavy caseloads carried by caseworkers and slowness of investigations into situations of alleged abuse.

DCYF’s deputy director, Kevin Aucoin, declined to comment on the decision, referring a reporter to the office of Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, who lauded Lisi’s decision and also emphasized the “vital importance” of child welfare and caring for abused and neglected children.

“The care of these children is one of the most important responsibilities of the State,” Kilmartin said.

Source: Providence Journal